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Government, Politics & Issues

Changes To Veterans Affairs Department Passes First Hurdle

Jim Howard/St. Louis Public Radio

Imagine two schoolboys scrambling to their feet after tussling in the dirt, both trying to convince a teacher that their fight wasn’t all that bad, and each vouching for the other that they really do get along just fine. That image may give you an idea of how hard-fought negotiations over a compromise bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, turned into the kind of jovial news conference conducted Monday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

Late last week, talks appeared to be at an impasse. Each side accused the other of engaging in political misdeeds and questionable tactics. Just days later, the two men reached agreement on a $17 billion plan to address both short-term and long-term problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The measure includes $10 billion to cover the costs of private medical care for veterans who have waited more than 30 days for an doctor’s appointment or for veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The bill also includes $5 billion to hire more doctors and nurses and fill vacancies at VA facilities. Another $1.5 billion will be allocated to pay for leases at 27 major facilities to expand capacity and speed up services to veterans.

Those are the carrots in this compromise legislation. The stick comes in the form of significantly expanded authority for the VA secretary to quickly demote or fire employees who are accused of lying or otherwise engaging in mismanagement. VA employees facing such firings will immediately lose their pay and have just 21 days to appeal the action against them.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., had recently introduced legislation she said would give the VA secretary the ability to fire anyone involved in poor treatment of whistle blowers from within the department. A spokesperson for McCaskill issued a statement saying the senator is “encouraged at the bipartisan nature of the agreement, since care for our nation’s veterans should never be a partisan issue.” Still, the statement stopped short of expressing the senator’s support for the measure. “Claire’s going to take a hard look at this agreement to ensure that it lives up to the standard of care that our veterans have earned,” it read.

Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin, issued a statement saying: “Our veterans deserve the highest quality of care.” She said the “announcement of a bipartisan, bicameral deal is an important step in providing superior, private-sector care for our nation’s heroes.” And as a mother of a soldier, she said she believes “it is our moral responsibility to protect those that have sacrificed so much to defend our freedom.”

Both Sanders and Miller expressed confidence that the bill would pass both chambers before lawmakers leave town for their August break. The two also said that they conducted their negotiations with the understanding that the House and Senate are very different in their partisan views.

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