Sanders pushes to get VA bill quickly to Obama

The chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said he expects lawmakers to quickly name conferees to work out legislation overhauling the nation’s veterans’ healthcare system.

“My goal is to move legislation as quickly as possible ... and get this to the president’s desk as soon as we possibly can,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Now is the time for action.”

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The Senate last week almost unanimously passed legislation drafted by Sanders and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that grants the Veterans Affairs secretary new authority to dismiss incompetent managers and gives veterans more options for seeking care at non-VA providers.

The House has also approved legislation that Sanders said “covers a lot of the same ground” as the Senate reform bill.

He said he was confident that he would be able to work with House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) to “bridge the differences” between the two bills.

“We don’t want this to drag on and on and on,” Sanders cautioned. “We want this bill to pass quickly.”

One potential issue that could slow negotiations is the Senate bill’s $2 billion price tag, which would be paid for in emergency funds. Many House lawmakers want the bill to be paid for with offsets, though they have yet to identify possible cuts.

Another sticking point is how quickly veterans could seek care at non-VA providers. House lawmakers say patients should only have to wait 14 days before looking outside the agency's system, while the Senate measure dictates they must use wait times set by the VA.

The Senate measure also allocates $500 million for the VA to hire additional doctors and nurses.

Sanders noted that the agency has 741 job listings for doctors on government websites but said that figure is only a “floor” and that the real need is significantly greater. He said a VA hospital in Phoenix alone needs an estimated 500 healthcare providers to deal with their backlog.