The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation to revamp the Veterans Affairs Department’s scandal-ridden healthcare system.
Lawmakers voted 93-3 in favor of a nearly $2 billion bill from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that gives the VA secretary new authority to fire senior executives and provides veterans greater options for seeking medical care.
Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) voted against the bill.
The vote came the same day that the Justice Department ordered the FBI to open a criminal investigation into misconduct at the VA. An audit released Monday found the department has systematically concealed long wait times for care, with more than 57,000 veterans waiting at least 90 days to see a doctor.
"This is an emergency," McCain said. "If it’s not an emergency that we’ve neglected these brave men and women who have protected our country, then I don’t know what is."
Both chambers of Congress have now passed legislation aimed at fixing the VA, and leaders of the push are expressing optimism that a compromise could quickly reach President Obama’s desk.
"The bills have a lot in common," Sanders said. "There are some differences but I think Chairman [Jeff] Miller [(R-Fla.)] is a reasonable guy and I think we're going to work them out."
The House on Tuesday unanimously passed similar legislation offered by Miller, who spearheaded the VA reform efforts in the lower chamber.
“I’m pleased the Senate has acted to address VA’s accountability and delays in care crises. Many of the provisions included in today’s Senate-passed bill are based on ideas that have already cleared the House, so I’m hopeful that both chambers of Congress can soon agree on a final package to send to the president’s desk,” Miller said in a statement.
The Senate bill aims to boost accountability at the VA by giving the secretary the power to dismiss senior executives and immediately remove them from the payroll. Dismissed employees would get one week to appeal the decision, with a department merit board having three weeks to deliver a final verdict.
The legislation incorporates a GOP-backed provision to issue veterans a “choice card” to seek medical care at non-VA providers if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from the nearest agency hospital or clinic.
Under the two-year pilot effort, patients could receive treatment at private facilities that accept Medicare or TRICARE, the military’s healthcare plan, or sites run by the Defense Department.
The measure also taps $500 million in unused VA funds to hire more doctors and nurses and authorizes the construction of 26 new medical facilities across the country.
The legislation makes several other tweaks to the department, including granting in-state tuition for all veterans at public colleges and universities, improving medical care for military sexual assault victims and letting surviving spouses of former service members become eligible for additional VA benefits.
The VA is undergoing a major upheaval that could last for months to come, particularly if criminal charges are brought against officials in the department.
The White House-backed national audit of the department's medical network flagged more than 100 VA sites that warranted additional scrutiny. Meanwhile, the VA's inspector general is investigating 69 facilities for manipulation of appointment wait times and has contacted the Justice Department about potential criminal charges against employees.
"Is this a final solution to these problems? No, but it is a beginning," McCain said of the Senate bill. "Unfortunately the scandals haven't stopped. … There will be other shoes that drop. Literally every day there's a new revelation."
Sanders also said he wants to take up legislation later that would expand the Caregiver program, provide reproductive care and improve dental coverage.
"There are serious problems facing other veterans community," Sanders said. "The committee is going to work on them and we hope to be back on the floor again in the not too distant future."
Final passage in the Senate came after lawmakers voted 75-19 to waive a budget point of order against the bill.
Sanders said that if Congress can spend between $3 trillion to $6 trillion to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it can afford $2 billion to help take care of those veterans who fought in those wars.