After 5 Weeks Of Haggling, Congress Inks Bipartisan VA Bill

Congress has reached a bipartisan deal to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, after nearly two months of tense negotiations.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, after five weeks of negotiations, there's a deal in Congress to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's a bill that would spend billions of dollars to pay for new doctors, nurses and health clinics. It was brokered and announced by Congressman Jeff Miller, a Republican and Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war, so is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight our battles.

SHAPIRO: That was Senator Sanders earlier today at the Capitol. NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans and joins us now. Hi Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi Ari.

SHAPIRO: How does this bill aimed to fix the problems at the VA?

LAWRENCE: Well, the biggest problem was vets were waiting too long for care and the way many VA hospitals were actually reporting fake statistics. They were lying about how quickly veterans saw a doctor. And that's what brought this issue front and center. So this bill makes it possible for the VA secretary to fire incompetent or dishonest staff, which is something the VA had been very slow to do. And among many other things, it puts $5 billion towards hiring new doctors and nurses within the VA - that's to address one basic issue which is that they had too many vets seeking care and not enough staff to see them. Then there's $10 billion for veterans to get private care outside the VA system.

SHAPIRO: Private care outside the VA system? How exactly would that work?

LAWRENCE: So this is an idea Republicans have been pushing to expand for many years. If veterans have been waiting too long for emergency care or live at least 40 miles away from the VA, they can choose private care and get reimbursed with, essentially, a voucher. And there's an ideological fault line here that Representative Jeff Miller hinted at even as he praised the cooperation on this bill.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF MILLER: Senator Sanders and I differ about certain things, but one thing that we do agree about is that the veterans of this country deserve the best quality health care that they can get in a timely fashion and that has not been the case as of late. The VA is not sacred. The veteran is.

LAWRENCE: So for Senator Sanders on the Democratic side, the VA is kind of sacred. It's the government's oath to take care of veterans.

SHAPIRO: And Quil, are those partisan differences the reason it took five weeks to reach this deal?

LAWRENCE: That's part of it - partisan attitudes, mostly about spending. Initial estimates said this bill was going to cost many tens of billions of dollars. Now, both parties say it'll be about 12 billion in new spending. But these numbers, you may have noticed, are all very round, and no one really knows exactly how many vets will decide to go for private care. And I should say, this deal still needs to get a vote by the full Congress. It should sail through the Senate, but Congressman Miller admitted he's going up to sell it to some House Republicans because of the cost. He did say he thought he could do it, but it wouldn't be a unanimous vote.

SHAPIRO: And briefly, what kind of reception are you seeing from veterans groups? Do they think this bill is going to solve some of these problems that have been around for a long time?

LAWRENCE: So far - and it was just announced this afternoon a few hours ago - vets are calling it a good first step. But there's sort of a cloud over all of this, and that is that the VA was caught peddling fake statistics. So it'll be hard to know when to start to trust the numbers on wait times and the real costs of private care and how all of these solutions are going to shake out for the nearly 9 million veterans inside the VA system.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence. Thanks, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Ari.

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