A bipartisan committee of federal lawmakers unveiled a new compromise proposal Monday to correct problems in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been engulfed in scandal about efforts to conceal long wait times for veterans’ health care.

The committee includes U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who predicted bipartisan support and the backing of veterans.

The bill includes $17 billion in new funding for the VA, roughly a third of which must be offset by cuts within the current VA budget. It allocates roughly $12 billion to expand capacity within the VA system, while also allowing more vets facing longterm delays to receive care at private clinics. It also sets up a year-long process of evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of the VA with an eye towards structural reform.

“We’ve been able to get a lot done in the this bill. I am very confident that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will support the compromise,” Michaud said in an interview in Portland Monday morning. “It’s something I know veterans in Maine will be very proud of and very happy to see Congress enact.”

Richard Fournier, the commander of the Disabled American Veterans of Maine, said he needed to read the bill before offering a reaction. He was concerned that previous versions of the bill were not clear about who decides when, and under what circumstances, a vet can go to a private doctor.

“They’re not just going to let anybody go see anybody they want, otherwise they’ll lose control and that may hurt more than help,” Fournier said.

Problems in the VA came to light this spring, when a whistler blower claimed VA officials in Phoenix were concealing long wait times for care by keeping secret lists. The Office of the Inspector General revealed that 1,700 vets were not on an official waiting list, and at least 18 vets died while awaiting care.

Details of the compromise were announced Monday afternoon during a press conference in Washington, D.C. by conference committee co-chairs, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida.

A conference committee, on which Michaud serves, has been trying for weeks to reconcile VA reform bills that have been passed by the House and the Senate. The committee was expected to approve the compromise on Monday night, sending the bill to Congress.

The bill includes roughly $12 billion in emergency funding to hire more doctors and nurses within the VA by hiring more doctors and nurses and opening 27 new clinics in 18 states. None of those clinics are in Maine, Michaud said.

The bill also provides additional funding that would allow veterans to see a private doctor if they cannot get an appointment at a VA clinic within 30 days.

An additional $5 billion would fund a two-year extension of the ARCH program, which allows vets who live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic to see private doctors. Michaud included Maine as one of five test sites for the project in a 2008 bill he helped pass.

The compromise bill also establishes a PC3, or Patient Centered Care, program that would expand the network of private clinic available to veterans having trouble seeing VA doctors, Michaud said.

The compromise also includes a provision to increase accountability among VA staff that was first proposed by Michaud. That provision would make it easier to fire, not only senior VA officials, but also doctors and physicians, known as Title 38 employees, some of whom were implicated in the Phoenix and Florida scandals.

Both Sanders and Miller shared Michaud’s optimism that the comprise would receive bi-partisan support before Congress adjourns on Thursday.

Miller pointed to his background in sales when asked during a news conference how he would convince House Republicans, who are reluctant to support spending increases without accompanying budget cuts, to support the bill.

“Obviously, some of our members will be more educating than others,” Miller said.

Michaud, who is the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House’s Committee on Veteran Affairs, was campaigning in Maine this weekend, but said he was “very active” in the compromise, particularly in ensure that Project ARCH was continued for two additional years.

He flew back to Washington Monday morning, rather than participating in a rally held by the Maine Democratic Party and headlined by Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads the Democratic National Committee.

Michaud is currently in a three-way race to become Maine’s next governor.

His opponents, independent Eliot Cutler and Republican Gov. Paul LePage, reacted differently to the compromise.

Cutler expressed hope that veterans would receive needed care, while LePage’s campaign attacked Michaud.

“I’m glad for Maine veterans that Congress has finally found the will to deal with this crisis, and I hope that all veterans, here and across the country, will now get the prompt, high quality care they are entitled to receive,” Cutler said in a written statement.

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political consultant, accused of Michaud of “being asleep at the switch” by letting the problems within the VA fester.

“Michael Michaud is using the code word ‘compromise’ in an effort to hide his partial responsibility for the veterans’ care crisis,” Littlefield said in an email. “Michael Michaud had one of the worst veterans disasters in American history build on his watch.”

Michaud, meanwhile, argues it was the committee’s oversight that brought the issues to light. Systemic reforms are needed to fully correct the problems at the VA., he said.

Last week, Michaud met with Bob McDonald, who has been nominated to replace Eric Shinseki as the VA secretary. Shinseki resigned as VA secretary on May 30, and Michaud expects McDonald to be confirmed this week.

Michaud said McDonald was receptive to his ideas about reforming the VA structure, mainly by breaking down barriers between the benefits and health administrations.

“I’m excited about that,” Michaud said. “He has really taken a keen interest in making sure the VA is an efficient VA that will deliver the serves we have to for our veterans in the most cost-effective way.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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