Before it left for its summer recess, Congress needed to pay a debt of honor. For some lawmakers, it wasn’t easy.
The process approved by a conference committee didn’t allow amendments to be made; it was just an up-or-down vote. The cost came high, at $17 billion, including $12 billion in new spending that will add to the deficit.
Congress came through — the House passed the bill 420-5 and the Senate 91-3. It was a matter of honor because the nation’s veterans were the ones who were owed.
The agency entrusted with their care, the Department of Veterans Affairs, had failed them. Veterans had to endure long waits for appointments. Waiting lists were falsified in some cases to cover up the problem.
The bill before Congress had a bipartisan stamp. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida who is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who aligns with Democrats and is head of the counterpart panel in the Senate, worked together to see it through.
Their compromise bill includes $10 billion in emergency spending to solve the waiting-list problem. It will pay private doctors to handle cases of veterans who cannot get appointments within 30 days or within 40 miles of their homes.
If it succeeds, this partial privatization might serve as a future model for an agency that is bureaucratically large and perhaps as a consequence has delivered socialistic inefficiency.
In Abraham Lincoln’s immortal phrase, the nation’s duty is to care for him who shall have borne the battle. It is not necessarily to own and operate a separate health-care system that in government control goes much further than the Affordable Care Act does.
The measure also allots $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, and $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country. The bill incudes efforts to improve care for veterans who have suffered sexual assault in the military.
But the new law is not a cure-all for what ails the V.A. There are, for example, no new requirements for infectious disease reporting, a concern since the outbreak of illnesses at V.A. facilities.
As for increasing the deficit, Senator Sanders got it right: This bill needed to be considered a cost of war, paid for through emergency spending.
“Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war,” Mr. Sanders said. “So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles.” On this pressing issue, Congress did its duty.