WASHINGTON – Hopes faded late Wednesday that key senators could quickly craft a compromise bill that would help veterans facing long appointment waits at veterans hospitals and make it easier to fire administrators who covered up the delays.
Senators had hoped to vote as soon as today on a measure to address an uproar over veterans’ health care following allegations that veterans have died while waiting to see a Veterans Affairs doctor.
Senators wanted to pass the bill before Friday’s 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II. Up to a dozen senators were expected to attend the D-Day ceremonies in France.
Leading the negotiations were Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the only self-described socialist in Congress.
Sanders had said Wednesday afternoon he was cautiously optimistic that a vote could be held today.
But a spokesman for Sanders said a few hours later that talks would continue today, making a vote today unlikely. Senators fly to France this evening.
Chairman Sanders held productive discussions today with Sen. McCain and others about how to provide high-quality health care to veterans in a timely manner, spokesman Michael Briggs said in a statement.
Sanders hopes to reach an agreement to take before the full Senate as soon as possible, Briggs said.
Sanders acknowledged that he and McCain make an unlikely pair, but he was upbeat about the prospects of quickly reaching a deal. I’m cautiously optimistic, he said Wednesday before prospects for a quick resolution dimmed. McCain is serious, I’m serious, and Reid is serious.
McCain was less optimistic about a bill being passed this week. I am not predicting anything, he told reporters.
The main stumbling block appeared to be over when and under what circumstances veterans could turn to doctors and other providers outside the 1,700-facility VA system for what is largely free care for them.
The two lead negotiators couldn’t agree on how to define it.
Sanders said the primary issue was waiting times, while McCain said it was giving veterans a choice beyond VA for getting care.
The issue is how do we make sure every veteran in this country can get into a VA facility in a reasonable period of time. And if they can’t, what do they do? Sanders said, answering his own question: They go to private doctors, they go to other medical providers. And we’ve got to work out the details.
McCain would rather let veterans who can’t get a VA appointment within 30 days or who live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic go to any doctor who participates in Medicare or the military’s TRICARE program.