- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2014

Senators struck a bipartisan deal Thursday to begin cleaning up some of the problems at the VA, announcing a bill that would let veterans see a doctor outside the department’s health system if they faced excessive wait times or live far away from a facility.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, merged Democratic and GOP proposals together, rushing to strike a final deal ahead of Friday’s commemoration of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

“When tough compromises are made, usually it’s a sign of bipartisanship and a sign that it’s a good piece of legislation,” Mr. McCain said.

The bill would let veterans more than 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs facility, or who experience a long wait for an appointment, see a doctor of their choosing, while under the supervision of the VA to ensure veterans are seeing good doctors and keeping accurate medical records.

The change to give some veterans a choice of providers was a key component of the Republican plan.

The bipartisan plan also would give the next VA secretary more power to fire incompetent senior officials. The secretary could take an employee off the payroll immediately, but the employee would have a week to appeal the decision if he thinks it unfair. Mr. Sanders said this gives employees due process and prevents firings for political or other inappropriate reasons like race, age or sex.

The organization would then have three weeks to make an expedited decision on the appeal.

The bill would also allow for 26 leases for new VA major medical facilities across the country — one fewer than the 27 proposed in the Democrats bill. The bill would also hire more doctors and nurses throughout the system using $500 million that had been appropriated in previous years but never spent.

Veterans will be able to secure in-state tuition as part of some changes to the GI Bill included in the legislation. Tuition benefits would also be available to gold star wives.

The bill does not have several provisions in Mr. Sanders’ bill that the Senate GOP blocked earlier this year, citing cost concerns. Those included more access to complementary and alternative medicine, dental care, broader caregiver laws to include pre-9/11 veterans, and increased fertility treatments for injured vets.

“Does it solve all of the problems facing our veterans? Absolutely not. Should we come back and deal with this issue? Absolutely,” Mr. Sanders said. “But given the crisis we are in right now, this is an important step forward.”

Mr. McCain encouraged senators to introduce relevant amendments if they have ideas to make the bill better.

“If you have amendments if you think you can make this bill better, we welcome it,” Mr. McCain said. “But let’s not get hung up on certain other aspects of our differences that have characterized what most people would view as gridlock in this body.”

Lawmakers said they were working with members of the House, including Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Mr. Miller has already introduced a plan that would let veterans seek outside care if they couldn’t be seen at the VA within 30 days.

The House has also already passed an accountability bill to give the secretary more power to fire senior officials at the VA, though it lacks the due process rules that Mr. Sanders managed to keep in Thursday’s Senate compromise.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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