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Lawmakers Hope To Send Unified VA Bill To Obama By Late June

Members of Congress say they are confident of sending a unified version of a bill to overhaul veterans' health care to the president by the end of the month.

The Senate voted Wednesday to approve the measure, which would make it possible for veterans to get a voucher for private care in their community. It also, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reported on Morning Edition today, makes it easier to fire employees who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and cancels performance bonuses. A House version of the measure, which passed Tuesday, makes similar changes.

But, Quil notes: "The Senate version adds some big costs — letting the VA lease 26 new facilities and hire hundreds of new doctors to absorb the swelling demand for VA care as new vets come home from war and veterans from previous wars get older."

The Senate bill was backed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

"Is it exactly what I wanted? No," McCain said. "Is it exactly what the senator from Vermont wanted? Absolutely not. But this is an emergency.

"I tell my colleagues if it's not an emergency of how we care for those who have served in the field of battle, then nothing else is before this body. It breaks Americans' hearts when they hear and see these stories of these brave men and women, and the neglect they have suffered."

Sanders said he hopes to bring a unified House-Senate bill to a vote by next week.

The White House said Wednesday that President Obama supports the Senate bill.

The legislative changes come amid a controversy over long wait times at VA facilities for veterans seeking care. A nationwide audit found more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or longer for an initial medical appointment. At least 35 veterans died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix, the VA says, though it's unclear if those deaths were related to the long wait times for appointments.

Here's more from Eyder, who reported on the story:

"Perhaps more stunning, the internal audit found that 13 percent of schedulers said they received instructions from supervisors to falsify data so the centers could meet performance goals.

"Specifically, the anonymous survey asked schedulers: 'Do you feel you receive instruction from the facility to enter a desired date other than the date a Veteran asks to be seen?'

"Thirteen percent said yes, and the report notes that while the reasons for answering yes varied, schedulers at 90 clinics said they were doing so 'in order to improve performance measures.' "

The controversy has claimed the job of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who stepped down from the post on May 30.

The Associated Press reports that the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the department that is being led by the bureau's Phoenix field office.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.