(Adds detail on VA acting secretary visit to Phoenix on
By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder
WASHINGTON, June 4 U.S. lawmakers engaged in
rare bipartisan talks on Wednesday about legislation to address
delays in the delivery of health care for military veterans.
The discussions sparked optimism that Republicans and
Democrats can quickly strike a deal for a bill that would ensure
immediate care for veterans and give the Obama administration
greater authority to fire employees at the Department of
Aides to Senate Democrats said a vote on a compromise
measure could come as early as Thursday.
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who chairs the chamber's
Veterans Affairs Committee, met with Republican Senator John
McCain and Representative Jeff Miller to try to work out
differences between competing proposals to fix widespread
problems in the VA's health care system.
Veterans groups had expressed concern that Sanders's
ambitions for a comprehensive package of VA reforms would get
bogged down in election-year partisan politics, but the groups
were encouraged by the lawmakers' shift in focus toward smaller,
"They're going to be forced to start to work together. It's
certainly a very positive step," said Louis Celli, legislative
director for the American Legion.
The flurry of activity comes less than a week after VA
Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid the scandal over
widespread schemes to mask the care delays and protect staff
bonus awards and salary increases.
In Phoenix, where cover-up schemes first surfaced, doctors
said that 40 veterans had died while waiting for care.
Acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson will visit Phoenix VA
facilities on Thursday and told veterans groups that officials
have now reached out to 1,700 veterans waiting for care
appointments, the VA said.
More details of problems elsewhere surfaced on Wednesday as
Kansas Senator Pat Roberts released a VA document showing 108
veterans faced care delays at some facilities in Kansas,
Missouri, Indiana and Illinois.
House Speaker John Boehner sought to keep the pressure on
President Barack Obama for VA changes, asking him in a letter to
urge Senate Democrats to pass Republican reform bills.
The White House is considering Toby Cosgrove, head of the
prestigious Cleveland Clinic, as a possible candidate to run the
VA, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee,
said he believes that Sanders is open to moving some VA reforms
more quickly than others.
"The hope is that some type of a compromise can be reached
that can pass the Senate and quickly pass the House," he told
reporters after their meeting.
But key differences remain. A House-passed measure sponsored
by Miller provides the VA secretary authority to fire employees
or demote them at will for poor performance, while Sanders wants
to maintain some employment safeguards.
A plan from Arizona's McCain would give veterans a new
"choice card" option that would allow them to seek private care,
while Sanders wants to keep VA care in-house as much as
possible. Some lawmakers also want a provision authorizing
leases to open 27 delayed VA outpatient clinics.
(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Writing by David
Lawder; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ken Wills)