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In A Rare Act Of Bipartisan Speed, Senate Passes VA Reforms


Tens of thousands of veterans have been waiting months to get medical appointments, all while VA hospital staff claimed patients were being seen in 14 days or less. The FBI is now involved in a VA inspector general's investigation into the problem. And Congress has moved with rare bipartisan speed. This afternoon, the Senate passed a bill to reform the VA. It was backed by ideological rivals, Arizona Senator John McCain and Vermont's Bernie Sanders. Here's Sanders on the Senate floor.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: I would remind my colleagues that when Congress voted to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it did so with emergency funding. If we can spend that kind of money to go to war on an emergency basis, surely we can spend one-tenth of 1 percent of that amount to take care of the men and women who fought those wars.

CORNISH: NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans issues and joins us to talk more about today's vote. And, Quil, how will the Senate bill address the problem's we've been hearing so much about, especially those long wait times?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, first it aims to get those veterans who've been waiting to get them care. Anyone who's been waiting too long for an appointment or who live 40 miles or more from a VA clinic can essentially get a voucher to go to any private provider. And as for the executives who are lying about these wait times, these bills give the head of the VA authority to find them quickly, and bonuses across the VA are suspended. The House bill actually puts a blanket-ban on performance bonuses across the VA through 2016.

CORNISH: And you mentioned the bill would allow vets to turn to private care. Will that make a difference?

LAWRENCE: Well, lawmakers are hoping that with a choice of either the VA or whatever care is available in the community, the vets will get an appointment quicker. In some rural areas, they can even use Bureau of Indian Affairs' clinics. And I want to stress that we're not talking about emergency care here. Vets can still go to the ER and take care of anything urgent or life-threatening with any emergency room.

CORNISH: And then looking at the passage of the bill in Congress, is it some kind of sign that maybe they're rising above partisan politics, at least on the issue of veterans?

LAWRENCE: It may be a sign that it's an election year. This VA issue hits pretty much every congressional district in the country. They all have vets. They all have VA facilities attached to them. When this scandal broke, lawmakers were clearly trying to get on the record as doing something about it. But, yeah, this discussion in the House and the Senate has been mostly free of the sort of partisan ranker we just heard earlier in the program.

There is a bit of an ideological divide - debate still seeping into it about how much the government should be involved in health care. But it's going much faster than when they were working on vets' issues even just earlier this year. Back in February, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had proposed a sweeping veterans benefits bill, and it was killed. Now the dynamic seems to be different.

CORNISH: Finally, Quil, the House has its own version of a VA reform bill. How close are these two bills? How hard will it be to find a compromise?

LAWRENCE: The big difference is that there are some large sort of big-ticket spending items in the Senate bill. The Senate bill allows the VA to lease 26 new health facilities that the VA is projecting it's going to need to carry of the baby boom generation of veterans. It puts in money to hire new doctors right away to take care of these waiting patients. Now, all of these new measures cost money. Even in the Senate this afternoon, there was a procedural roadblock thrown up to - because of the cost. That was defeated easily, and the vote - it passed the Senate. But it may be harder to get spending through the House. And we'll have to see what makes it through Congress and onto the president's desk.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Quil, thank you.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.


ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues right after this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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