Outraged Senators Reach Across Aisle For Deal On VA Wait Times

Senators have unveiled a bipartisan deal to build new medical centers for veterans and allow the quicker dismissal of high-level employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's a reaction to the scandal that resulted in the departure of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Some U.S. senators have crafted a bipartisan response to the crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last week, amid controversy over treatment delays at veterans' hospitals. Now, a Senate plan calls for construction of new medical centers for veterans. It would also allow quicker dismissal of high-level employees at the VA.

NPR's Ailsa Chang is following all of this from the capital. And Ailsa, I know many members of Congress have been hopeful that a bipartisan deal would be reached quickly, even though it's an election year and that can be tough. Can you talk about why this issue carried a special urgency?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Yeah, I asked Senator Chuck Schumer of New York that exact question just an hour ago in the elevator. You know, why did we see movement on this issue despite seeing this chamber stall over so many other things this year?

And, I think, well, first with unemployment benefits and equal pay legislation, you have the problem where the two sides want very different things. But on this issue, basically, Schumer said veterans just represent a higher calling around here. You know, first came the scathing Inspector General report last month, talking about systemic treatment delays in the VA, indicating that delays in one sample lasted an average of 115 days. And then there was the resignation, as you referenced, last week of VA secretary Eric Shinseki.

So there's just been a real sense that the people who fought for this country have been betrayed, and Congress needs to do something about it now.

CORNISH: All right, so the details of the deal - specifically treatment delays, right? That was the main problem. Under this proposal, how would that be addressed?

CHANG: Well, first, the proposal would authorize construction of 26 major new facilities for the VA in 18 states. The proposal would also set aside $500 million for hiring new doctors and nurses in the VA. Senator Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, explained that there's simply been a shortage in too many areas of the country.

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SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Many primary care physicians get burned out by working 12 - 14 hours a day. They quit - the turnover rate is too hard.

CORNISH: Ailsa, there's also a provision that would allow veterans to choose to go to private facilities instead, right?

CHANG: Yeah, that's a provision Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona has long wanted, although he does grant that the VA has specialized in certain care that just can't be replicated elsewhere - like the treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. McCain does say, however, that veterans should be given greater flexibility to choose private care when they want it.

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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Where if they're outside of 40 miles from the nearest VA facility, if there's a wait time which is unacceptable, then they should be able to go to the health care provider right near their home, not have to get in the van and ride for two or three hours for a routine medical care.

CHANG: What McCain's referencing there are two requirements under this proposal that would be imposed before a vet can go to a private facility. First, he or she has to either live at least 40 miles away from a VA facility, or the vet has to be facing an unreasonable wait time for treatment. But just how long of a wait would be required wasn't hammered out by the Senators, they're going to leave that up to the VA.

CORNISH: Finally, Ailsa, what provisions were there to provide greater accountability in the VA in the bureaucracy?

CHANG: Well, under the deal, the VA secretary would be able to immediately fire any senior VA official, but Sanders was concerned about purely political firing. So under the deal, anyone fired can appeal that decision within a week and have that appeal be heard by a board within three weeks after that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang at the capital. Ailsa, thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome.

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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