Congress overwhelmingly passes $16.3 billion plan to overhaul VA
WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday approved a massive $16.3 billion plan to reform the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs despite last-minute challenges over the cost.
The Senate voted 91-3 in favor of the compromise bill to expand veterans' access to private health care, hire more VA medical staff, lease new department health-care facilities and give the secretary more power to fire executives.
The bill was approved in the House on Wednesday, ensuring a final reform plan will be headed to President Barack Obama to be signed into law just as Congress departs Washington for a month-long August recess.
Public outrage has surged since April, when an ongoing scandal involving dangerous delays in veteran care and widespread VA staff wrongdoing first surfaced. Lawmakers have struggled to find solutions.
“It is a lot of money, but that is the cost of war, and that is what happens when millions of veterans come home and need the care they are entitled to receive,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said.
Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., reached a hard-fought compromise for fixing the VA last week after a month of debate, but it was almost undone by opponents on the Senate floor Thursday evening.
Fiscal hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., moved to block a vote and argued that spending billions on the VA would not solve an embedded culture of corruption and irresponsibility.
“The culture is one of looking good, protecting those in the VA and not protecting our veterans,” Coburn said. “You have to have a bill that fixes that. I don’t believe this is going to do it.”
He argued that for years, the VA budget has increased much faster than its workload, yet severe problems with getting veterans timely health care have grown worse.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who voted against the reform bill, said it would expand veterans’ access to outside health care for about three years with $10 billion but creates a “massive” unfunded liability after that. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., also voted against it.
The bill passed by Congress calls for $10 billion in emergency spending to let vets who cannot get a VA appointment within 30 days of a request or live more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility seek treatment from private providers.
It aims to increase the capacity of the VA health care system by pumping another $5 billion into hiring new doctors, nurses and other VA medical staff. Also, $1.27 billion would be spent on leases for 27 new medical centers in 18 states and Puerto Rico, according to a cost estimate released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Congress would pay for about $4.46 billion of the price tag by capping VA employee bonuses to a total of $350 million per year, deferring planned reductions in housing loan interest rates and trimming other areas of the department budget, the CBO said.
Overall, the reform would cost U.S. taxpayers about $10 billion in new deficit spending over the coming decade, the agency found.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., helped to craft the legislation and stepped in to defend the cost from opponents Thursday.
He said Congress must pay to allow veterans the choice to seek private care outside the VA and give the department secretary more power to quickly fire senior executives who are incompetent or corrupt. The bill would give incoming VA Secretary Robert McDonald the power to fire senior management at will and provides for a one-week appeal period.
“I think we can change the Veterans Administration, but the present situation calls out for immediate action,” McCain said, urging fellow senators to vote for the measure just hours before leaving on recess.
The VA is the second biggest federal agency and runs the nation’s largest integrated health care system. It serves almost nine million veterans at about 1,700 locations around the country. Each day, 200,000 beneficiaries seek care at its hospitals and clinics.
In April, a national scandal exploded when a whistleblower alleged about 40 veterans died while on a secret waiting list kept by staff at a Phoenix VA hospital. VA inspector general audits and congressional testimony has since revealed a deeply dysfunctional agency in which staff at about 70 percent of medical facilities had manipulated patient wait-time data and ignored threats to patient safety.
The VA reported Thursday that about 636,000 veterans have currently been waiting more than a month to get care at its hospitals and clinics.