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Lawmakers announce tentative deal on bill to overhaul troubled VA

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FILE: May 17, 2014: The Department of Veterans Affairs in Phoenix, Ariz. (AP)

The leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees unveiled a tentative deal on Monday on legislation meant to improve veterans' health care and tackle the litany of scandalous problems at the VA, in a bid to get the wheels turning on a solution ahead of the looming August recess.   

"This starts the conversation," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who leads the House veterans committee. "The VA is not sacred -- veterans are." 

The proposal would authorize at least $17 billion in spending over the next three years to fix the veterans health program, with about $5 billion of that offset elsewhere in the budget. Congressional aides say the agreement includes funding to make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with Veterans Affairs doctors to obtain outside care and funding to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff. 

The plan also grants the VA secretary authority to immediately fire senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate veterans panel, proposed a bill last week that would cost about $25 billion over three years. Miller, his House counterpart, responded with a plan to approve $10 billion in emergency spending, with a promise of more spending in future years. 

The two lawmakers' differences threatened to derail talks last week, but the lawmakers negotiated over the weekend and produced the plan announced on Monday. 

"The United States Congress is in my view a dysfunctional institution ... so I'm quite proud of what we've accomplished," Sanders said Monday. 

The leaders of both parties in both chambers would still have to take the pulse of their respective caucuses on the plan, which would still have to be approved by the House and Senate. 

The announcement, though, could quell concerns that Congress would start a five-week summer recess without any legislative solution amid widespread national outrage over problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The pair said in a joint statement that they had "made significant progress" toward an agreement on legislation "to make VA more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses and other health care professionals." 

The plan, among other provisions, includes funding to give veterans who can't get a VA appointment the option of receiving non-VA care; funding for the VA itself; and authority for the VA secretary to immediately fire corrupt or incompetent senior executives. 

Eighteen veterans died while on a secret waiting list for care at the VA facility in Phoenix. And an inspector general’s report in May found roughly 1,700 veterans in Phoenix were on the unauthorized list with some waiting as long as 115 days for treatment.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned shortly after the release of that report.

Lawmakers were working through dueling proposals last week. Those proposals would have scaled back separate House- and Senate-passed bills after lawmakers in both parties expressed shock at price tags totaling more than $35 billion. 

The Obama administration says it needs about $17.6 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, lease new facilities and upgrade its computers to reduce a backlog of veterans awaiting care at VA hospitals and clinics.

The administration's request does not include money to allow more veterans to go to private doctors to avoid long waits for VA care. Expansion of private care was the biggest cost in the bills approved by Congress.

Republicans complained that Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's budget request was thinly documented. Miller told Gibson on Thursday he was surprised that such a large request was made in a slim, three-page memo.

The VA request includes $8.2 billion to hire 1,500 doctors and thousands of nurses and other medical and mental health professionals; $6 billion for construction projects to improve safety or patient access; $1.2 billion for computer enhancements; and $400 million for more staff to deal with the agency's backlog of benefits claims.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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