Closing in on an overhaul of the VA?

Congress is under pressure to strike a deal

By The Mercury

Although tentative agreements in Washington, D.C., often don’t amount to much, there’s reason for optimism that one worked out over the weekend between key House and Senate leaders might hold up.

Perhaps the primary reason is that this deal is intended to help overhaul the Veterans Administra-tion. Not only is the need obvious, but lawmakers surely recognize that addressing problems with medical care for veterans takes precedence over the overt partisanship that has blocked progress on so many other matters.

Spokesmen for Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who is chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, announced the tentative agreement Sunday. Further information, including potential costs, was to be made public this afternoon.

Costs have been a sticking point, with the Senate seeking substantially more money than the House has been willing to approve. The House had been willing to commit $10 billion while the Senate sought $25 billion. Importantly, Sloan Gibson, who is acting VA secretary, told lawmakers last week that the VA needs more than $17 billion over the next three years to hire more medical personnel.

As essential as money is for more physicians and other medical personnel — and to allow eligible veterans to seek care outside of the VA system —  it is not the only important element. To their credit, both houses of Congress have agreed on the need to allow the VA secretary greater authority to hold senior executives accountable and, if necessary, to fire them.

Senior administrators were in the thick of the recent VA scandal involving the mishandling of medical appointments for veterans. Some concealed delays and received bonuses for making their hospitals look more efficient and effective than was actually the case. These abuses may have contributed to the deaths of several dozen veterans whose care was unnecessarily delayed.

The scandal also led to the resignation of retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, a distinguished veteran of Vietnam who later served as Army Chief of Staff.

This tentative agreement can, of course, be derailed by lawmakers with their own agendas. And even if it does pass, there’s no guarantee that it will result in systemic changes. Though the VA seems to be in perpetual need of reform, the right prescription has long proved elusive.

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