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POLITICS: PennAve

Senators look for a bipartisan solution to Veterans Affairs problems

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A mismanagement scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs has had the unexpected side effect of bringing the Senate's Republicans and Democrats together.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators announced the framework of a deal to reform the veterans' health care system, though it may take a little longer for the Senate to vote on an actual bill.

The plan appears to include ideas from a bill the Republican-led House passed that would give the VA secretary the power to fire poorly performing senior executives. And it would provide veterans with “choice cards” to allow them to obtain private medical care if they face long wait times at VA hospitals or live more than 40 miles from a facility.

“I am pleased that real accountability measures are included in the legislation,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said of the proposed framework.

The VA system has been plagued by problems, including long waiting lists for medical care and evidence that senior executives destroyed records to cover up mismanagement. According to a report by the VA inspector general, vets at the Phoenix VA medical center wait to see a doctor for an average of 115 days. The IG also discovered a list of 1,700 vets waiting for care who were inexplicably excluded from an electronic waiting list, leaving them in limbo.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the two parties were obligated by the scandal to work out a bipartisan deal.

“Veterans should not have the care they deserve and need waylaid by partisan bickering,” Burr said when announcing the deal.

Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., canceled a hearing scheduled for Thursday that would have focused on his own ideas, such as expanding VA medical care for veterans, increasing hiring of VA nurses and doctors, and providing limited ability for vets to get private care if they can't get an appointment within the system.

Sanders' bill, which had a price tag of $2 billion, was declared a nonstarter by Senate Republicans, in part because of its cost and also because the GOP believes it did not provide the VA secretary enough authority to fire incompetent senior executives or give vets enough flexibility to seek outside care.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Sanders' bill, which would have allowed vets to obtain VA care for medical needs not related to their military service, was "way, way, way too expansive."

Sanders backed down on his own plan, and began meeting privately with Republicans about their proposed legislation.

The Republican bill, sponsored by Burr as well as Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, included a provision for the “choice card” and also gave the VA secretary greatly expanded powers to quickly fire poorly performing senior executives who have borne the brunt of the blame for mismanagement at VA hospitals.

The legislation would also compel VA hospitals to disclose wait times.

“Unlike Sen. Sanders' bill, this legislation addresses the root causes of current VA scandal and empowers veterans with greater flexibility to get the quality medical care that he or she deserves,” McCain said of the Republican proposal.

The bipartisan compromise will be a mix of ideas from Sanders' bill and the Republican legislation.

Under the deal, Sanders agreed to remove most of the costly items in his legislation, primarily the expansion of medical care for injuries and diseases not related to military service. He also eliminated the cost of hiring increases for nurses and doctors by using existing money budgeted for the VA.

Veterans groups are worried that the compromise will undermine any real hope of meaningful reform at the agency, which has been troubled with long waiting lists and other problems for decades.

“If it’s a watered-down deal, we’ll be against it,” Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.

Hegseth, like other veterans groups, wants the legislation to strip out all of the red tape that prevents the VA from firing senior executives when necessary.

“We are not in this business to be purists,” said Hegseth, an infantry captain in the Army National Guard. “But we also see a moment. And this is an opportunity for real change in a department that needs change badly.”

McCain told reporters he wants an opportunity to amend the compromise bill in order to improve it, but Democrats have have allowed few GOP amendments, which has led to gridlock in the chamber in recent months.

“The question is will Harry Reid allow amendments to be debated and voted on,” McCain said.

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