Congress comes up with a deal on veterans

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Story highlights

  • Senate and House committees have reached a tentative deal to reform the VA
  • The troubled department was rocked by a waiting list scandal earlier this year
  • Officials: Legislation would "make the VA more accountable"

Calling it a "cost of war," Republican and Democratic leaders announced a $17 billion compromise bill Monday that would get veterans to a doctor more quickly, hire more medical staff, add dozens of new facilities and cut bonuses at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As it aims to reshape medical care for veterans, the proposal also would plump up the deficit, adding $12 billion in red ink.

The bill was hashed out over months and unveiled by the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees after a weekend of negotiations.

The deal would pour spending into both short- and long-term programs for the struggling VA. That money comprises:

• Roughly $2 billion to lease 27 new medical facilities;

• $5 billion for hiring doctors and nurses and some construction;

• And $10 billion to go to a new program allowing veterans to seek outside care if they wait longer than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles away from a VA hospital.

More than a funding bill, this deal also gives the veterans secretary unprecedented power to quickly fire executives at the agency.

Anyone fired under that provision would have a week to appeal the decision and the case must be decided within 21 days or the person's firing goes into effect.

That agreement merged Democrats' insistence on an appeals process with Republicans demand for fast consequences.

"It is compromise legislation," said Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, "(There) was give and take on both sides."

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That includes the price tag, which is handled with a combination of emergency spending (as Democrats hoped) and offsets (as Republicans wanted).

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Specifically, lawmakers would offset some $5 billion of the spending by forcing other changes at the VA, including what will amount to a cap on staff bonuses at the agency.

But after those cost cuts at the VA, the deal would add approximately $12 billion to the federal deficit.

That's usually something that Republicans would block, but the two leaders behind the bill argue this issue deserves what they call emergency spending.

"Funding our veterans' needs must be considered a cost of war," Sanders stressed.

The toughest sell may be with spending-skeptic House Republicans. But House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, insists his fellow conservatives will give the bill the votes it needs.

"I believe it will (pass)," he told reporters Monday. "Taking care of veterans is not an inexpensive proposition. And I believe our members understand that."

Republicans may warm up to the increased oversight in the measure, which requires an independent report on VA health care, a commission on access to care and a task force to review the agency's scheduling system.

The 130-page bill also contains a host of smaller provisions: it increases incentives for young doctors to work at the VA by doubling the amount of their student loans the agency can repay per year.

The deal comes under threat of travel clock, as Congress plans to leave for a five-week break by Friday.

Miller and Sanders said they expect both chambers to vote on the legislation this week, though exact scheduling is still under discussion.

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