June 4 (Bloomberg) -- Senate Republicans and Democrats are seeking an agreement on legislation to make it easier to fire top U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials and reduce hospital waiting times.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee canceled a meeting scheduled for tomorrow to consider a measure introduced by panel chairman Bernie Sanders that would authorize $2 billion in emergency funds to hire doctors and nurses and open 27 new medical facilities.
“We are working on an agreement,” Sanders told reporters after the first of two meetings today with Senator John McCain of Arizona, sponsor of a Republican alternative. “I would like to see it done as soon as possible.”
Later in the day, McCain said progress had been made in the talks while adding that it was doubtful a deal would be struck in time for the Senate to act this week.
“There are still a few points to work out, but I hope we can get there,” he said in an interview.
Sanders refused to speculate on the contents or timing of any deal. “Hopefully we will get something done sooner than later,” he told reporters.
U.S. lawmakers are facing pressure to find a way to eliminate the long delays at many VA hospitals for veterans seeking doctors’ appointments. At least 40 veterans died while awaiting care, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller has said.
“This is one where we cannot go to our corners and hold fast in a way that harms the veterans,” Miller, a Florida Republican, said after meeting with Sanders today. He said Sanders showed flexibility in their discussion.
Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he canceled his panel’s hearing to see if lawmakers could provide “an expeditious solution” to the VA’s woes.
“The issue is waiting times,” Sanders told reporters. “How do we make sure every veteran in this country can get into a VA facility in a reasonable period of time.”
An inspector general’s report on May 28 found systemic mismanagement, treatment delays and falsified records throughout hospitals that treat 8.3 million veterans. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned two days later.
The Democratic and Republican measures would both make it easier for the Veterans Affairs secretary to dismiss incompetent senior officials.
Sanders’s bill would allow a three-week appeal process after the official is removed. That’s needed as a matter of fairness and to avoid litigation that would delay efforts to make the agency more accountable, he said.
Miller called the appeal process a “stumbling block” in negotiations.
Senate Republicans’ proposal, as well as a House-passed bill, H.R. 4031, would provide unlimited power to fire top officials in the agency. Sanders said that would politicize the VA by allowing each new administration to replace large numbers of senior executives.
McCain said if Democrats don’t allow amendments and debate on a Senate bill, “Republicans are not going to go along with it.”
He said the main difference between his bill and Sanders’s legislation is that “we give the veteran the choice to go out and have the health care that he or she needs. The Sanders bill, that decision is made by the bureaucrats.”
Sanders’s proposal would give more veterans access to approved non-VA facilities, such as those run by the Department of Defense and two private providers, TriWest and Health Net Inc. The companies have VA contracts valued at $4.4 billion and $5.1 billion, respectively, through 2018, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Industries.
The VA spent $4.8 billion, or 10 percent of its health budget, on outside providers in 2013.
Veterans of Foreign Wars, the second-largest fraternal organization for military veterans, is backing Sanders’s plan to cut waiting lists, said Raymond Kelley, the group’s lobbyist.
“If they can find something that can go to a vote and pass, that’s a big win for us,” Kelley said in an interview.
The largest U.S. veterans group, the American Legion, and three other organizations, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, American Veterans and Concerned Veterans for America, wrote letters endorsing the Senate Republican proposal.
McCain’s plan would give veterans a “choice” card allowing them to receive care from non-VA providers under certain circumstances.
Before the Senate adjourned yesterday, Majority Leader Harry Reid procedurally set up the Sanders bill, S. 2422, to go directly to the floor without consideration by a committee. If Sanders and McCain reach a compromise it might be brought up as an amendment to that bill.
The Senate scheduled votes tomorrow on Sylvia Mathews Burwell’s confirmation to be the new health and human services secretary.
Also today, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other Republican leaders in the chamber sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling for structural changes to the veterans’ hospital system.
“We ask that you publicly call on Senate Democrats to reconsider their obstruction and immediately pass” the House bill to begin making changes in the agency, the letter said.
Shinseki’s resignation doesn’t address the agency’s “fundamental problem -- which is the abject failure of the department to meet the needs of our veterans,” they wrote.