Before it departed for its summer recess, Congress needed to pay a debt of honor. For some members, it wasn’t easy. The process approved by a conference committee didn’t allow for amendments to be made — it was just an up-or-down vote — and the cost came high at $17 billion, including $12 billion that will add to the deficit.
Congress came through — the House passed the bill 420-5 and the Senate 91-3. It was a matter of honor because the nation’s veterans were the ones owed. The agency entrusted with their care, the Department of Veterans Affairs, had failed them. Veterans had to endure long waits for appointments (in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System up to two years) and waiting lists were falsified in some cases to cover up the problem.
The bill before Congress had a bipartisan stamp. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican from Florida who is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont who aligns with Democrats and is head of the counterpart panel in the Senate, worked together to see it through.
Their compromise included $10 billion in emergency spending to solve the waiting list problem by paying private doctors to handle cases of those who cannot get appointments within 30 days or within 40 miles of their homes.
If successful, this partial privatization might serve as a future model for an agency which is bureaucratically large and perhaps in consequence has delivered inefficiency. In Lincoln’s immortal phrase, the nation’s duty is to care for him who shall have borne the battle.
The statute also allotted $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical staff and $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country. The bill had other tidbits such as measures to improve care for veterans who have suffered sexual assault in the military.
But it was not a cure-all for what ails the VA, whose new secretary, Robert A. McDonald, received Senate confirmation Tuesday. Local lawmakers were disappointed that no new requirements were included for infectious disease reporting, a concern since the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease at the Pittsburgh VA.
As for increasing the deficit, Sen. Sanders got it right. This needed to be considered as a cost of war, paid for through emergency spending. “Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles,” he said.
On this pressing issue, Congress did its duty.