Senior senators reached agreement today on the framework for a bipartisan bill that would help veterans' get health care outside the government's Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics. The bill would allow veterans who experience waits of 30 days or more for VA appointments or who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private doctors enrolled as providers for Medicare, military TRICARE, or other government health care programs. It also would let the VA immediately fire as many as 450 senior regional executives and hospital administrators for poor performance.
The bill resembles a measure passed last month by the House, but includes a 28-day appeal process omitted by the House legislation. The Senate deal came as acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced that 18 veterans who were kept off official VA waiting lists in the Phoenix area have died. Gibson said he does not know whether the deaths were related to long waiting times to see a VA doctor. The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a federal report as being kept off an electronic waiting list of scheduled appointments, Gibson said. Taking care of those 1,700 veterans is his top priority as VA chief, Gibson said during a tour of VA facilities in Phoenix, where the furor started. (In another development, the VA was apparently punishing whistle-blowers.)