WASHINGTON - A refashioned bill to address problems plaguing the Veterans Affairs Department should be approved by the Senate as soon as possible, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would give the VA authority to immediately remove senior executives based on poor job performance while preventing "wholesale political firings" that Sanders said could be allowed under a similar bill approved by the House.
The Senate bill also would allow veterans who can't get timely appointments with VA doctors to go to community health centers, military hospitals or private doctors and would authorize VA to lease 27 new health facilities in 18 states.
"This is really good legislation," Reid said Monday on the Senate floor. "Every senator should support this."
The bill comes amid a growing scandal over patient delays and cover-ups at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide that led to the resignation last week of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. A federal investigation into the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an official waiting list.
The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems throughout the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
While those who have lied or manipulated data must be punished, "we also need to get to the root causes of the problems that have been exposed," said Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. With 2 million more veterans coming into the system in recent years, after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "there are many facilities within the VA that do not have the doctors, nurses and other personnel that they need to provide quality care in a timely way," Sanders said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the Senate should approve a bill he sponsored to give the VA secretary authority to immediately fire VA senior executives based on performance. The House approved the bill, 390-33, last month.
Miller dismissed concerns expressed by Sanders and other Democrats that the House bill would "trample" on due-process rights and protections for VA employees. The House bill also could allow firing of whistleblowers, Sanders said.
"Ironically, the same lawmakers voicing these concerns do not afford similar `rights' and `protections' to their own employees, making their opposition to (the House bill) all the more incomprehensible," Miller wrote Monday in a column on Time Magazine's website.
A White House spokeswoman said the Obama administration shares the goals of the House-passed bill and has worked with Sanders to move legislation forward while addressing some technical issues with the House-passed version.
"We hope Congress can finish its work on a bill that addresses accountability and makes important reforms (at the VA) and will continue to work closely with them to get that done," spokeswoman Amy Brundage said.
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, urged the Senate to approve the House-passed bill "as its stands" and send the measure to President Barack Obama.
At a Capitol Hill news conference Monday, Rieckhoff described the Senate as the place "where good ideas go to die."
Rieckhoff called for a criminal investigation into the VA's health care system and said anyone who falsified records or other wrongdoing should be prosecuted.
"If people broke the law and hurt our veterans, they should go to jail," he said.
Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders, dismissed Miller's criticism Monday, saying the House-passed bill "does one part of one thing and does it poorly. We are looking at a more comprehensive approach."
An earlier version of Sanders' bill did not have enough support to pass in February.
Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called on Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson to release 216 site-specific audits detailing widespread falsification of waiting list records and unreported delays in treatment at VA facilities across the country. The VA released results of the audits Friday, but did not reveal any site-specific data.
"The American public, most especially our nation's veterans, have a right to know now what problems have been found, who is responsible and what will be done to remedy these serious issues," Blumenthal said.