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Sanders, McCain Announce VA Health Care Deal (Updated) (Video)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 4:16 p.m. | Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., announced a bipartisan VA health care deal Thursday afternoon.  

Sanders, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs chairman, and McCain met Thursday to negotiate a bipartisan response to the scandal at the VA — and they announced the deal on the Senate floor.  

“We were able to come together, I believe, in a way that will help to relieve this terrible tragedy that seems to have befallen our nation’s veterans,” McCain said. “We both had to make some very tough compromises.”  

“Our job was to sit down and work out the best agreement. We did,” Sanders said. “Does it solve all of the problems facing our veterans? Absolutely not.”  

The deal includes accountability measures allowing immediate firing of Department of Veterans Affairs officials, leases for 26 new VA major medical facilities and authorization to hire new doctors and nurses.  

Notably, it would also allow veterans to get private care if they are experiencing long wait times or are more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The provision would last for two years and then be evaluated to see if it addresses the issue. What counts as unreasonable will be determined by the VA.  

Sanders said that allowing private healthcare providers to solve the problem was a significant concession for him, because he is concerned about privatization of the system. “It opens up a fear of privatization, which I am strongly, strongly opposed to,” Sanders said.  

It also includes other issues, including in-state tuition rates for all veterans at public colleges and universities. Surviving spouses of soldiers who die in the line of duty would also get tuition aid.  

The measure is expected to cost less than $2 billion and will be classified as an emergency appropriation, meaning it would not have to be offset under budget rules. “Maybe a little more than $1.5 billion, I think,” Sanders said of the estimated cost. Of that amount, $500 million would go toward funding new VA doctors, he added.  

The measure has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the chamber is expected to begin considering it as soon as next week, McCain and Sanders said.  

“We are going to finally have it in legislative language by Monday night, and Harry has told me he is going to bring it to the floor as soon as possible,” McCain said.  

McCain said he believes germane amendments to the plan should to be considered by the Senate, but added that debate shouldn’t take too long.  

“On an issue like this, I would hope we could dispose of amendments as quickly as possible,” McCain. “What we are going to do is hotline it starting on Monday, see if there are amendments that people have and then go from there.”  

McCain said that if the measure is passed by the Senate, he expects that it would go to conference with a House-passed VA bill.  

While there are some similarities between the two measures, he said he expects Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, will want to examine the Senate package.  

“He certainly isn’t going to rubber stamp it,” McCain said.  

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., warned other senators not to try and attach “extraneous” amendments, because that could “blow up” the deal.  

“It’s a very good agreement,” Schumer earlier. “It focuses both on the accountability issue but also on the issue of solving the problem so there aren’t such long waiting lists and veterans get the health care they need more quickly.”  

Schumer said the proposal would hopefully be introduced next week. “I don’t think we can get it done today,” said the New York Democrat after a news conference on student loan debt. “It has to be drafted and everything else but I would say soon, very soon.”  

Reid also addressed the negotiations at the same news conference.  

“I am very confident and hopeful that they would work something out on a bipartisan basis,” he said. Reid was, however, reticent about a potential timeline.  

“We’re a long ways from what they want to do to what they’re going to do,” Reid said. “I’ll wait and see what they have to say this afternoon.”  

Sanders announced the bipartisan negotiations Wednesday. He also postponed a VA hearing to allow more time to reach a compromise after Republicans and Democrats announced alternate proposals to deal with the scandal.  

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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