The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have reached a tentative agreement on a plan to improve veterans' healthcare after they lashed out at each other
over their competing bills late last week.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Sunday they'll have a news conference Monday to talk about a compromise plan to fix a veterans' health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays.
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Miller chairs the House veterans panel, while Sanders chairs the Senate panel.
The deal requires a vote by a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators, and votes in the full House and Senate.
Miller and Sanders said in a joint statement that they "made significant progress" over the weekend toward agreement on legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department.
Negotiations had appeared in jeopardy Thursday after Miller and Sanders announced their competing plans, then held separate news conferences lashing out at each other. The men resumed talks in private Thursday night.
The plan is intended to "make VA more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals." Miller and Sanders said.
Few details of the agreement were released, but the bill is expected to authorize billions in emergency spending to lease new 27 clinics, hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.
Sanders proposed a bill last week that would cost about $25 billion over three years. Miller countered with a plan to approve $10 billion in emergency spending, with a promise of more spending in future years under the normal congressional budget process.
Miller's bill would keep most of the provisions in a Senate-passed bill and would authorize about $100 million for the Veterans Affairs Department to address shortfalls in the current budget year.
Both bills cost significantly less than bills approved last month by the House and Senate.
The VA scandal came to light earlier this year when whistleblowers gave the media accounts of long wait times for veterans that were covered by "paper lists" to hide the fact that the VA's suggested seven-day waiting period wasn't being met.
Some veterans died while waiting to see a doctor.
Republicans and Democrats proposed separate plans. But the Congressional Budget Office estimated the costs at more than lawmakers had expected – $44 billion in the case of the GOP-led House proposal and $35 billion for the Democratic-led Senate plan.
An overload of the system has been blamed as part of the reason for the backlog, and acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson wants $17.6 billion to hire more doctors and staff to alleviate the problem
Troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with a spike in Agent Orange claims from Vietnam veterans are sending more to VA medical centers seeking treatment.
The House and Senate are set to adjourn at the end of the week until early September, and lawmakers from both parties have said completing a bill on veterans' healthcare is a top priority.
Montel Williams, who has been outspoken on fixing the VA quickly
, has been pushing the Twitter hashtag #VASurge to get lawmakers' attention. He didn’t sound optimistic in a tweet Sunday.
Williams, a Marine and Navy veteran before he became known as a talk-show host, blamed Republicans in the House for keeping legislation from getting passed. In a separate tweet, Williams urged House Speaker John Boehner to hold an up or down vote on the compromise deal.
Republicans have blamed Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for stopping legislation because they say he has refused to allow Republican amendments to bills.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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