The United States Senate belied its sclerotic reputation Wednesday and passed a key piece of legislation. The move proved that even in an election year – or perhaps because this is an election year – some things are too important to ignore. But it also highlights the fact that our lawmakers can get things done if and when they want to.
The Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act passed the Senate by a vote of 93 to 3. It was a heartening and welcome move.
Colorado’s senators, Democrats Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, voted for the bill. The three “no” votes were Republicans Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Their objections centered on the deficit. Four others were absent.
In a press release, Udall, who serves on the Senates’s Armed Services Committee, pointed out some of the bill’s main provisions. It will streamline the process for firing Veterans Administration employees guilty of misconduct or mismanagement. It requires a third-party audit of the VA’s scheduling system, authorizes funding to speed the hiring of doctors and nurses and will ensure that all veterans going to college on the GI bill get in-state tuition. It also aims to improve access to quality care for survivors of sexual assault in the military, whether veterans or active duty.
In what is perhaps its most important provision, the bill allows veterans to visit non-VA health-care providers if the VA cannot provide them with timely care or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. That last part could have a tremendous impact in Colorado and across the West.
How quickly this came together suggests the Senate took it seriously. A bill that became part of the final compromise had been languishing in the Senate for several months. But the scandal that erupted around the VA’s mistreatment of veterans, and the wait times they face for care thrust the issue squarely into the limelight.
With that, some strange alignments came into play. The bill was sponsored by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. McCain is a veteran himself as well as a former prisoner of war. Sanders is described by the Almanac of American Politics as “a Socialist elected as an independent ... but treated as a Democrat in the Senate.”
That those two would agree might seem incongruous, but in fact, it appears they worked well together. Roll Call quotes McCain as describing Sanders’ chairmanship of the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee as having been “conducted with patriotism and with the needs of our veterans uppermost in his priorities.”
All of which is great. Veterans deserve good health care delivered in a convenient and timely manner. Recent exposures of VA mismanagement rightly lent a sense of urgency, and the bill itself, while a compromise, appears to be a good step toward righting things.
But the obvious question remains: Why can those in Washington not act like this more often?