House and Senate negotiators have unveiled a $17 billion plan to overhaul the way the nation’s veterans obtain medical care, including a $10 billion provision to privatize services to help shorten long wait times.
“This bill makes certain we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long wait lines for health care,” said Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
The proposal, co-authored by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., includes a major reform provision aimed at allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to immediately fire senior employees who currently enjoy an appeals period that can last for years. The plan would allow the VA secretary to immediately fire senior workers who are incompetent or who lie, allowing them a 21-day appeal period.
The bill will require $12 billion in new spending that will add to the nation’s deficit as emergency funding.
About $5 billion of the cost will be offset though savings within the current Department of Veterans Affairs budget, Sanders said.
The bill includes $5 billion to hire additional doctors, nurses and medical professionals to help cut down on wait lists that are years long in some cases as the VA deals with a growing number of veterans with medical needs. An addition $1.5 billion would be spent on leasing 27 new VA medical facilities.
Money is also included to create a college tuition program for the widows of veterans killed in action and to extend an in-state tuition program for veterans.
The money to privatize care will also allow vets who live 40 miles or more from a VA facility to see doctors outside the system.
“I don’t believe there will be a flight of all of the veterans out of the system, but we don’t know until we start the program,” Miller said. “And this year is going to give us a good benchmark on which to set the future of the system.”
Sanders said ultimately if many vets seek private care, more money may be needed.
The legislation must now clear a bipartisan conference committee and then both chambers. The House adjourns on Thursday for the August recess and the Senate leaves town on Friday.