LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
As Congress prepares to leave town for summer recess at the end of the week, one item on the to do list appears closer to getting done - fixing the troubled health care system under the Department of Veterans Affairs. A deal was hammered out over the weekend aimed at eliminating long waits faced by thousands of veterans seeking appointments at VA facilities. It would also make it easier to fire administrators, like those who doctored records to cover up huge backlogs of patients. Both the House and Senate would have to move quickly for the $17 billion measure to become law this summer. Here's NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: For weeks it looked as if the effort to fix the VA's recently discovered failure to attend many veterans properly would meet the same partisan impasse a lot of other legislation has run into during this Congress. But yesterday, the two chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees held a news conference at the Capitol with a different message - that things there don't always have to end in disagreement.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: We are here together having done something that happens quite rarely in the United States Congress.
WELNA: What they did was compromise, said Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. He and House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller may have been snipping at one another all last week in public, but Sanders said the lines of communication between them never broke down.
SANDERS: What's important is that he understood and I understood this is not Democrats and Republicans or Independents, this is the veterans of the United States of America. And we have a moral obligation to do, and we did it.
WELNA: The deal they struck provides $10 billion for care outside the VA's nearly 1,000 facilities. To qualify, veterans have to be enrolled in the VA health care system by the end of this week. They have to show it would take more than a month for them to get an appointment, or they have to live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic. Senator Sanders said he strongly supports that plan.
SANDERS: You live 100 miles away, and you're sick. You should not have to make that long trip. You should be able to go to a provider in your community.
WELNA: The deal would also open 27 more VA facilities nationwide. House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Miller said it's not clear how many of the 9 million veterans who use the VA system would opt out of it.
JEFF MILLER: The VA has caused this problem, and one of the ways that we can help solve it is to give veterans a choice - a choice to stay in the system or a choice to go out of the system. There may be folks that actually will not come back into the system.
WELNA: An additional $5 billion would be spent hiring more doctors and nurses to cut waiting times at VA facilities. Miller said veterans will decide if the VA is as good as it says it is.
MILLER: VA always says 90 percent plus of the people in the system are satisfied. Well, here's a great way to test it because if they are, you would expect 90 percent will stay in the system.
WELNA: Under the terms of the deal, negligent high-level VA officials could also be fired immediately with only three weeks to appeal that action. Five billion dollars worth of funding would come from shifting money in the VA's budget, but another $12 billion would have no offset and add to the deficit. Sanders noted that's the same way wars have been paid for.
SANDERS: Funding for veterans needs must be considered a cost of war and appropriated as emergency spending.
WELNA: But most House Republicans have insisted that any fix for the VA system be paid for by cutting other government spending. Congressman Miller, who's a former salesman, said he's confident he can sway enough fellow Republicans to get the deal passed by the House.
MILLER: There will be an educational process that will have to take place. Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others.
WELNA: Ian de Planque, a lobbyist for The American Legion, says his organization is backing the compromise.
IAN DE PLANQUE: This hasn't fixed the problems of the VA, but it's an important step towards going to fix it. And so we're happy in that sense.
WELNA: Votes on the legislation are expected this week. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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