Key U.S. senators announced on Thursday a bipartisan proposal to address a crisis in veterans' healthcare, seeking quick action on a scandal that embarrassed the Obama administration and angered lawmakers who are strong advocates for veterans.
The legislative proposal, which must be voted on by the full Senate, is aimed at ensuring immediate care for military veterans while giving the Obama administration greater authority to fire employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It was reached after rare bipartisan negotiations led by Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last week amid the scandal over widespread schemes to mask the long delays faced by many veterans seeking healthcare appointments at veterans' facilities.
Senators rushed to craft legislation in response. In Phoenix, where schemes to cover up the delays first surfaced, doctors said that 40 veterans had died while waiting for care.
"All of us have been appalled by what we read about in Phoenix and in other locations, about people manipulating data, pretending that veterans were getting care in a timely manner, when that wasn't the case," Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said on the Senate floor.
"We have a crisis on our hands and it is imperative that we deal with that crisis," Sanders said.
"It started in Phoenix, Arizona ... but it has spread all over the country," said McCain, who represents Arizona in the Senate and is a veteran of the Vietnam war who has long advocated for veterans.
"It begins with the terrible story of perhaps 40 veterans having literally died for lack of care," McCain said.
Sanders said the legislation would allow 26 major medical facility leases in 18 states around the country, and target $500 million in unobligated funds for the hiring of new VA doctors and nurses to help speed up veterans' access to care.
The bill also proposes that veterans who live over 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs medical facility can go outside the VA system to see the doctor of their choice, Sanders said.
This provision would also apply to veterans facing "long wait times" to see a doctor, a written summary of the bill said, but did not define the time period.
The bill would allow the immediate firing of VA executives accountable for the long delays many veterans have faced, but would also allow anyone fired to appeal within seven days. The appeal would then be decided within 21 days, the summary of the bill said.
During the appeal period "that person will not receive a salary. But that person will have some due process," McCain told the Senate.
McCain and Sanders are hoping for floor votes next week on the proposal. It also would have to clear the Republican-run House of Representatives before it could be sent to President Obama for signing into law. Some provisions have already passed the House in similar form.
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