WASHINGTON — Top lawmakers appear to have reached a deal to use $10 billion in emergency money to fund a bipartisan bill that would allow veterans to seek private care if they face long wait lines at Veterans Affairs' facilities.
The compromise would apply to veterans who are enrolled for emergency care, as well as to those who live more than 40 miles away from VA facilities. It also provides money to hire more health care providers.
It would inject $17 billion into the VA system, but require VA to make up $5 billion of that by taking it from other programs, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"The problem we're having with access, we're going to deal with it right now," Sanders said. "Longer-term, I hope the VA will address the issue through culture."
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the veterans needed a quick response — and that a compromise needed to be reached before Congress leaves for August recess.
"Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition, and I think our members understand that," Miller said. "We have a serious problem that needs to be resolved."
That said, he said he doesn't expect a unanimous vote from the House.
The compromise still needs to be approved by the Senate and the House.
Sanders said he expected to see Robert McDonald confirmed this week as VA's new secretary, and that VA would continue to make changes in culture and staffing issues.
Miller said he would rather the compromise allow the secretary to fire top officials without an appeal, but Sanders argued for the ability to appeal, and it appears in the compromise.
"It is a compromise legislation that has been give and take on both sides," Sanders said, adding that the funding mechanism is the same as was created in legislation he worked out with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Miller also said he doesn't believe the money will cause a "flight of veterans out of the system."
The compromise also expands care for veterans with military sexual trauma, extends a traumatic brain injury rehabilitation pilot program and improves the New G.I. Bill.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said officials want to study the details of the VA bill, but "the early reports are positive."
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said he supported the compromise.
"This legislation is another important step toward ensuring veterans no longer struggle with unacceptable wait times at VA facilities by giving certain veterans the option of seeing their local physician," he said in a statement. "Our nation's veterans should be treated like patriots, deserving of care from a grateful nation — not made to feel like a burden."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was glad Sanders and Miller were able to move past political differences.
"This deal is an important step toward addressing the many issues we know exist within the VA system, but it cannot be the final step," she said in a statement. "As transparency and accountability increase at the VA, so will the investigations and reports of additional concerns requiring even more action from the VA, the Administration and Congress."
The two sides sparred Thursday after Sanders said they had made progress, then Miller accused Sanders of not being open to what he called a "bipartisan proposal." Sanders said the proposal was a political ploy and did not include actual negotiation.
"Even as that day unfolded, we were communicating," Miller said at the press conference.
"Let's be clear, the United States Congress today, in my view, is a dysfunctional institution," Sanders said, adding that he was proud they were able to accomplish what they did.
AP Veterans Health Care Kansas
The House and Senate both approved legislation allowing veterans to go to non-VA doctors and other health providers, but they differed in how the bills would be funded and how many other resources would be included. The legislation is a response to revelations that the VA manipulated records to hide the fact that tens of thousands of veterans were facing long wait times for care. In the wake of the sandal, VA secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said earlier this month that he needs $17.6 billion in additional funds over the next three years to address long wait times, better training and more staff.
Republicans have argued that VA needs to be more efficient with the resources they have, while Democrats have argued VA needs more money because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created more need.
Last week, Gibson told the Senate that VA had been operating based on a budget goal, rather than the needs of the veterans.