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Veterans’ Bill Negotiated By Senator Sanders Passes Conference Committee

House and Senate negotiators late Monday approved a compromise bill to spend about $17 billion to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs. Vermont’s junior U.S. Senator was a key part of the negotiations.

The agreement from the 28-member conference committee was needed to move the bill to the full House and Senate. The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 compromise bill was announced earlier in the day by Veterans Committees’ chairmen Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders and Florida Republican Congressman Jeff Miller. Sanders, chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, says the bill is far from what both sides would have crafted but is an acceptable compromise.  “This bill makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lines for health care. It strengthens the VA so the it’ll be able to hire the doctors, nurses and other medical personnel it needs so that we can put a permanent end to long waiting lists. It addresses the very serious problems of accountability and makes certain that dishonest and incompetent senior officials at the VA do not remain employed there. And in addition it provides some other significant benefits for veterans and their families. Funding for veterans’ needs must be considered a cost of war and appropriated as emergency spending.”

Representative Miller says the measure will go a long way to resolving the VA crisis and holding officials accountable.  “The other thing it does is it starts a conversation, I think, about VA for the future. The veterans of this country deserve the best quality health care that they can get in a timely fashion.  And that has not been the case as of late. The VA is not sacred. The veteran is. And that’s the most important thing for all of us to remember

The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending that will allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from, or have waited more than 30 days for an appointment at, a VA facility to seek care from a private physician, community health center or other facilities.
It includes $5 billion to hire primary and specialty care doctors, nurses and other clinical staff for VA facilities. It also provides about $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics in 18 states and Puerto Rico.

Senator Sanders hopes that over the long term, the Veterans Administration will have the staff and culture to provide timely care to the veterans.  “We have people who have put their lives on the line. People who have come back with a whole lot of problems. And it would be an absolute disgrace to this country if we did not address their needs. This is not the end, this is the beginning. We are dealing now with a crisis situation and I think we have done good work in addressing the crisis. But God knows there’s a lot more work to be done in many, many areas and we’ve gotta keep going.”

Clinton County Veterans’ Services Agency Director Steve Bowman finds the compromise a start in meeting veterans’ needs.  But while the bill is a step forward, Bowman remains concerned. “We’re expecting 1.5 million military personnel to be discharged over the course of the next year, year-and-a-half. That’s going put a huge task on the VA health care system and the VA benefits system. And I don’t know whether the funding that Congress is providing is taking that fact in view with the way they’re funding this. Let’s keep in mind that this funding is emergency funding only. It is not the fiscal, or the annual, funding for the VA. So this is on top of what the VA already gets. So I think this is a start.”

The bill is expected to be sent to the president later this week.

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