Senate passes Sanders’ VA bill 93 to 3
The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a set of comprehensive reforms to the Department of Veteran Affairs, put forward by Sens. Bernard Sanders and John McCain following revelations that thousands of veterans were not being provided timely care.
The Senate passed the bill 93-3 on Wednesday. Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin voted against the bill. Four Senators abstained from voting.
The bill provides money for construction of 26 major medical facilities in 18 states deemed in need of expanded coverage. It also contains $500 million to bring more doctors and nurses into the VA system. The cost of the proposal is estimated at around $2 billion and would be paid for with emergency funds, according to a Sanders spokesman.
Beyond increased funding, the bill would allow the VA secretary to fire or demote high-level employees based on poor performance, though they would have one week to appeal their dismissal.
Another provision would allow veterans to seek care outside the VA if they experience long wait times or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital.
Vermont has one VA medical center in White River Junction, as well as five outpatient clinics scattered throughout the state. Patients at the VA clinics receive care through Telehealth Services, a videoconference system that allows patients to get certain treatments without having to travel to the state’s singular VA hospital, according to Naaman Horn, a VA spokesman.
If Vermont VA patients request treatment from a community doctor — either due to their rural location or for other reasons — the Vermont VA currently pays for that treatment, Horn said.
The passage of the bill comes after a number of failed attempts by Sanders to pass similar VA reforms earlier in the Congressional session.
But after a conclusive report from the VA inspector general’s office released in May found systemic problems within the agency, politicians on both sides of the aisle called for legislation.
“I was disappointed, frankly, that in February we introduced comprehensive veterans legislation that had the support of all of the veterans organizations. It also had the support of every Democrat, but we could only get two Republicans,” said Sanders, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affair. “Clearly, we did better today.”
The IG report documented the most severe deficiencies at a VA hospital in Phoenix, AZ, where more than 200 veterans waited an average of 115 days for their first appointment.
Following these and other revelations, Eric Shinseki, the VA Secretary, resigned on May 30.
The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the mismanagement at the VA, said FBI Director Jame Comey at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
In a system-wide VA audit released this week, the White River Junction VA hospital scheduled 98 percent of all appointments within 30 days of the reference date, slightly higher than the national average.
“I talk to veterans all over the state of Vermont and what they tell me is that they get very good care,” Sanders said. “I’m not going to say every veteran does, but that’s true all over this country.”
After being introduced on Monday, the Senate bill moved quickly towards passage, as did the House’s equivalent bill, the Veterans Access to Care Act of 2014, which was also introduced Monday. Rep. Peter Welch voted for the House bill, along with 425 Republican and Democratic colleagues. No one in the House voted against the bill.
The conference process between House and Senate leaders over the contrasting VA bills is expected to begin within the next couple days. Sanders said he hopes a bill will be ready for President Barack Obama to sign by sometime next week.
Sanders called the Senate bill a “very good start,” but outlined a number of other issues plaguing veterans. He has sponsored 21 bills this session relating to veterans, and stressed the work still needed on other veterans health issues, such as homelessness and hearing loss.
“This bill addresses the immediate crisis, which has to do with timely care for veterans to get into the VA,” Sanders said. “There are many, many other issues of importance that this bill does not address.”
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