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Deal Made on VA Health Care            07/28 06:06

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- After more than six weeks of sometimes testy talks, House 
and Senate negotiators have agreed on a compromise plan to fix a veterans 
health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records 
covering up delays.

   The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have 
scheduled a news conference Monday afternoon to unveil a plan expected to 
authorize billions in emergency spending to lease 27 new clinics, hire more 
doctors and nurses and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt 
appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care.

   An agreement reached Sunday by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Bernie 
Sanders, I-Vt., was a long time coming. The House and Senate approved bills on 
veterans health care in early June, and lawmakers from both parties said they 
expected a final bill by July 4.

   Instead, negotiators met once in public, then disappeared or held private 
meetings that produced few results. Talks reached a low point last Thursday, as 
Sanders and Miller had a public spat that appeared to leave the two sides far 
apart, with only days remaining until Congress goes on a five-week recess.

   Sanders, who chairs the Senate veterans panel, and Miller, chairman of the 
House panel, repeatedly lashed out at each other. Sanders accused Miller of 
acting in bad faith, while Miller said Sanders had "moved the goalposts" in 
talks to fix veterans' health care.

   A partisan impasse loomed, even as both sides said they hoped to avoid what 
Miller called the "sort of bickering and name-calling for which Washington has 
become infamous."

   Three days later, after talks by telephone from Florida and Vermont, Miller 
and Sanders were on the same page.

   Aides to the two men said Sunday they had reached a tentative agreement. The 
deal requires a vote by a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators, 
and votes in the full House and Senate.

   Miller and Sanders said in a joint statement that they "made significant 
progress" over the weekend toward agreement on legislation to reform the 
Veterans Affairs Department, which has been rocked by reports of patients dying 
while awaiting VA treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or 
omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. The resulting 
election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in late May.

   The plan set to be announced Monday is intended to "make VA more accountable 
and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses and other health care 
professionals," Miller and Sanders said.

   Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, the nation's 
largest veterans group, said the deal would provide crucial help to veterans 
who have been waiting months or even years for VA health care.

   "There is an emergency need to get veterans off the waiting lists. That's 
what this is all about," Celli said Sunday.

   Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of 
America, said the agreement was good news --- although several months late.

   "It's about time they're doing their jobs," he said of Sanders, Miller and 
other members of Congress. "You don't get a medal for doing your job."

   Veterans waiting two months for medical appointments "don't care about all 
this back and forth" in Congress, Tarantino said. "That's what should be 
driving decisions."

   An updated audit by the VA this month showed that about 10 percent of 
veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics still have to wait at 
least 30 days for an appointment. About 46,000 veterans have had to wait at 
least three months for initial appointments, the report said, and an additional 
7,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.

   Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said the VA is making improvements, but 
said veterans in many communities still are waiting too long to receive needed 
care. The VA provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans.

   The House and Senate are set to adjourn at the end of the week until early 
September, and lawmakers from both parties have said completing a bill on 
veterans' health care is a top priority.

   The Senate is expected to vote this week to confirm former Procter & Gamble 
CEO Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary, replacing Gibson.


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