Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday he's hopeful Congress will pass sweeping legislation later this summer to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.

"How you treat the veteran is a real testament and statement about who you are as a nation," Graham told a small group at the American Legion Post 147. "We have let you down, but that is going to change."

The Veterans Access to Care Act would qualify some veterans, especially those facing long wait times for new appointments or a long drive to a VA hospital or clinic, to receive health care at non-VA hospitals.

It would also make it easier to fire VA employees who aren't doing their jobs, said Graham, R-S.C. He spoke at a similar event in Greenville earlier Monday.

Both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed versions of the bill.

"The Senate bill is very close to the House bill," Graham said. "We're not there yet. We're inside the five-yard line. We've got to get into the end zone. We've got to reconcile the House and the Senate bill to say we win the day."

The legislation was prompted by a recent scandal that revealed veterans across the country, particularly at a VA hospital in Phoenix, have been waiting much longer for appointments than federal guidelines recommend.

Some veterans may have died because of delays in care.

"No more people will die waiting on health care," Graham said. "If we don't get this done this summer, shame on us."

A federal audit released last week shows new patients in Charleston wait about 45 days for an appointment with a primary care provider at the VA Medical Center.

"It does seem to take a while to get an appointment there," said Curtis Samson, 64, a Navy veteran who attended the event at the American Legion on Monday. "Other than that, they treat me pretty good down there."

At the VA hospital in Columbia, the wait time is 77 days, according to the report.

Local officials at the VA medical center in Charleston say they're confused by the federal data. Different information provided to The Post and Courier in early June by the Charleston VA Medical Center showed wait times for all appointments over the past six months averaged about 25 days for hospital patients.

"Our understanding is that VA used a different methodology to calculate wait times," said Charleston VA spokeswoman Tonya Lobbestael, in a prepared statement Friday.

"Although Charleston VAMC has requested this information throughout the course of this week, we have not received information yet from VA to explain the methodology or discrepancy."

In Charleston, the VA Medical Center serves approximately 60,000 patients.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.