Hugh McQuaid Photo
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Lawmakers in Congress reached a bipartisan agreement over the weekend for a bill approving billions in emergency funding to reform the struggling Veterans Affairs healthcare system, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Monday.

Blumenthal, who serves on the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, said the agreement is the “beginning of really good news” for veterans and the federal VA. The agency has been under intense scrutiny for weeks following revelations of long patient wait times and efforts by staff to cover up the system’s shortcomings.

The agreement will still need to be drafted into a bill and passed by both chambers of Congress. But if passed, Blumenthal said the deal would provide the agency with $5 billion to hire new employees and upgrade its facilities. He said the Errera Community Care Center in West Haven would be among the 26 facilities to receive new funding.

The bill would provide another $10 billion to pay for vets to access health care services from private providers outside the VA system, he said. Veterans would be permitted to seek outside care if they have been waiting too long or live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility, Blumenthal said.

The deal also includes provisions making it easier to fire or demote VA employees in an effort to enhance accountability of workers within the veterans healthcare system, he said.

“This is a big bill, but it deals with a big problem,” Blumenthal said. “I’ve heard over the past months about how big in scope and scale the problem with VA healthcare is in delayed treatment and sometimes lower quality treatment.”

The senator was optimistic about the bill’s chances despite Congressional gridlock. He said it was negotiated this weekend by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“My hope is the Senate will address it right away — literally in the next few days, and that the House of Representatives will do the same. It marks a bipartisan agreement: less than the Senate wanted but more than the House initially offered. It is a compromise,” he said.

Blumenthal said the final details of the bill were still being ironed out Monday. But because much of the cost is considered emergency funding, Congress is not required to offset the costs with revenue increases or cuts elsewhere. He said the agreement on emergency funding was a major point in the compromise.

Even with bipartisan agreement, Blumenthal said the new funding could be opposed by some members of Congress.

“There’s always the worry that a bill that permits emergency funding may be opposed by some of the extreme right-wing in the House, but this is a real consensus compromise and it involves the, really, mainstream recognition that our veterans have to be given what they need. We owe it to them,” he said.

Blumenthal said he pushed to keep the new funding for West Haven’s Errera facility in the bill. The deal includes money to upgrade the center, which helps vets with mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, and other issues.

“Generally speaking, [the upgrades] will permit more specialization in some of the care that’s provided, better facilities in terms of equipment, additional doctors because of the additional space,” he said.

Although Connecticut’s other VA healthcare facilities will not be given additional funding for upgrades, they could benefit from the additional funds being made available to hire more staff, Blumenthal said.