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By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators have reached a tentative agreement on legislation to bolster health-care funding and reforms at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, salvaging a deal after talks imploded last week.

The accord comes none too soon: Members of Congress plan to leave town at the end of the week for the long August break. A stalemate could politically damage the already unpopular Congress.

The top negotiators, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT), and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), scheduled a Monday press conference after working through the weekend. Final details of the package were still being completed, aides said.

Miller and Sanders “made significant progress toward an agreement on legislation to make VA more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals,” they said in a joint statement.

The deal would address both the long- and short-term needs of the VA, aides said.

Reforming the department was a top priority this spring after whistle-blowers disclosed long wait times at VA health-care facilities and cover-ups by VA workers. Some of those long waits led to patient deaths, whistle-blowers said. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign.

But as deliberations began on how to fix the system, House Republicans and Senate Democrats are split along largely partisan lines.

The parties agreed that veterans should be able to seek private-sector care when waits are too long at VA facilities. But the costs ran higher than expected — $44 billion under the House proposal and $35 billion under the Senate plan, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

A new round of talks brought costs down, but the parties were still far apart: Republicans wanted to spend about $10 billion, far less than the $25 billion that Senate Democrats proposed.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said nearly $18 billion is needed to hire more doctors and clinical staff. The VA’s workload has skyrocketed with the return of troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the widening of Vietnam War-era Agent Orange claims.

Talks had broken down Thursday, but negotiators resumed negotiations Friday and worked through the weekend, aides said.

Photo: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs via Flickr

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