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Washington • A rare bipartisan deal in Congress would spend about $17 billion to help ease U.S. military veterans' long waits for medical care.
The deal announced Monday expands the type of non-VA hospitals and clinics where veterans could receive care, authorizes leases for 27 new VA facilities, and allows the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to fire senior executives.
It includes about $12 billion in emergency spending and about $5 billion in offsets within the VA's budget, said Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller. The Veterans Affairs Committee chairmen in their respective chambers announced the deal at a news conference in Washington.
"We are here together having done something that happens quite rarely in the United States Congress," said Sanders, referring to the two chambers as a "dysfunctional institution." Miller is a Florida Republican.
The agreement was reached almost two months after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, following an inspector general report that showed widespread mismanagement, such as keeping phony lists to hide the long waits veterans face for medical appointments. At least 35 veterans died while awaiting care in Phoenix, according to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.
Sanders and Miller said they want both chambers to pass the measure by week's end, when lawmakers are set to start a five-week break from the Capitol.
It probably faces a tougher sell in the Republican-led House, where lawmakers aligned with the small-government tea party wing have opposed attempts to spend emergency money.
Miller said he was confident he'd get the measure through the House, conceding that the vote probably won't be unanimous. He said he's been speaking with lawmakers about the measure at Republican conference meetings in recent weeks.
"As we've discussed in our conference throughout this process, taking care of our veterans is not inexpensive," Miller said.
Increased payments in the deal could triple health-care provider revenue from the VA in the next year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Brian Friel and Jason McGorman. HCA Holdings Inc. and Universal Health Services Inc. hospitals had the most admissions among publicly traded hospitals in California, Texas and Florida, the three states with the most veterans.
The deal aims to contain costs by limiting eligibility to veterans who are already enrolled in VA health-care programs, those who live far from VA medical facilities and others who can't quickly get an appointment at a VA clinic or hospital.
It also gives the VA secretary complete authority to immediately fire senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights.
The House and Senate passed differing proposals to provide more funding and streamline waiting times, and a conference committee was appointed to come up with a final plan. The measure passed by the House cost $44 billion, while the Senate plan was $35 billion.
Republicans and Democrats involved in the negotiations had said they agreed on most policy changes, though financing remained a sticking point late last week.
Sanders last Thursday accused Republicans of being "not serious about negotiations," while Miller said Sanders had "moved the goal posts."
The VA, with a $160 billion budget, runs the nation's largest integrated health-care system. An internal audit in June showed that more than 120,000 veterans hadn't received a medical appointment or were waiting more than 90 days for care. That number was reduced to about 42,400 by July 1, VA data show.
A Senate committee last Wednesday unanimously approved former Procter & Gamble Chief Executive Officer Bob McDonald to lead the VA, sending his nomination to the full Senate.