The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
It took an inexcusable scandal to force the issue, but the do-nothing Congress managed to find near unanimity in approving a much-needed bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The $16.3 billion measure represented a true compromise between Democrats and Republicans to create an agreement aimed at speeding up medical care for veterans and holding agency officials accountable for their actions.
The measure was triggered by spring reports of mismanagement at the VA, where employees were alleged to have falsified records to cover up extremely long wait times for patients to receive care.
To address the long wait times, the measure, which must and will be signed by President Barack Obama, includes $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses and medical personnel and another $1.3 billion to lease 27 new clinics. But its major provision — taking up the majority of the funding — is its new “choice” program, which will likely have great impact on many Nebraska veterans.
That provision appropriates $10 billion to pay private doctors to treat veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, which is the case for hundreds of Nebraska veterans, and those who can’t get a VA appointment within 14 days.
The new program, which was strongly favored by Republican conservatives who believe in privatization of government services, will end in three years unless it is re-approved by Congress, hopefully ensuring that it works before it becomes permanent.
The bill also grants the VA secretary authority to immediately fire poor-performing senior executives, a provision opposed by Democrats concerned about the loss of civil service protections for those employees.
But the GOP compromised on the funding of the measure, which will be implemented over three years, by allowing the federal deficit to increase by $10 billion rather than seeking to offset cuts in other spending.
A few days before passing the VA bill, the Senate unanimously approved Robert McDonald, former head of Procter and Gamble, as VA secretary. He is charged with reforming the embattled agency that is mired in inefficient bureaucracy and deeply mistrusted by the veterans it is to serve.
Only five Republicans voted against the VA bill in the House and just three in the Senate. That’s evidence that Congress can reach an old-style compromise. But it shouldn’t take a scandal like that which engulfed the VA over the last four months to force congressional compromise and action.