Deal on bill to allow vets to see private doctors

Washington – The scandal at the Veterans Affairs Administration has done what little else could do in Congress – bring Democrats and Republicans together on a bill.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, and John MCain, R-Ariz., announced an agreement late Thursday afternoon that combined elements of three separate bills aimed at reforming the VA, which is under investigation because of allegations staff had covered up delays in providing care to veterans and other wrongdoing.

The compromise bill would allow veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. It also incorporates legislation sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would make it easier to fire VA officials.

Sanders, who heads the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the compromise contains measures both Democrats and Repubicans won’t like.

But he said the compromise is needed to begin to fix the problems at the VA that led to the resignation last week of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“I would have written a very, very different bill,” Sanders said. “Right now we have a crisis on our hands, and it’s imperative that we will deal with that crisis.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has planned a press conference in Hamden Friday to discuss the agreement, said it was “historic bipartisan deal that should be approved swiftly.”

“Americans are appalled and astonished by reports of unconscionable deadly delays, secret waiting lists, and false records – in effect cooking the books and covering it up,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “Criminal wrongdoing as well as decades old systemic deficiencies are unacceptable and intolerable.”

The bill would also authorize the construction of 26 medical facilities in 18 states, and direct $500 million  to hire more doctors and other health care professionals.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised to move swiftly on the legislation.

House Speaker John Boehner says he supports legislation that would make it easier to fire people at the VA, but he hasn’t weighed in on the Senate compromise. Boehner has criticized the White House for not doing more to solve the problem.

After the scandal broke last month, the VA conducted an audit of all of its facilities, but has not fully released the results.

The VA has medical facilities in West Haven and Newington and outpatient clinics in Danbury, New London, Stamford, Waterbury, Willimantic and Winsted.

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