Sen. Sanders pitches bill to help fix VA problems

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Eric Shinseki resigned Friday as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but that doesn’t fix the problem that led to his downfall: falsification of scheduling records to hide treatment delays at VA hospitals across the nation.

The responsibility for fixing that issue, outlined in an inspector general’s report last week, lies with the next VA secretary, who is yet to be named, and Congress, which funds, oversees and passes laws affecting the department.


Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). (Cliff Owen/AP)

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Sunday proposed a broad bill aimed at addressing the underlying problems behind the inappropriate scheduling practices, in addition to giving the VA greater authority to remove executives for poor performance.

The legislation would also allow veterans to use non-VA medical centers when they cannot obtain timely appointments at VA clinics. Patients would be permitted to use community health centers, military hospitals and private doctors in such situations.

Other provisions in the bill would:

* Authorize emergency funding to hire new doctors, nurses and other providers to address shortages of providers at VA clinics.

* Allow the VA to lease 27 new health facilities in 18 states.

* Start new scholarships from the National Health Service Corps to forgive college loans for doctors and nurses who work at the VA as part of an effort to attract more health professionals to the department.

The measure includes at least nine other major provisions that range from allowing in-state tuition for all veterans no matter where they live to providing 100 percent of the VA’s budget through “advanced appropriations,” which are not as easily affected by Congress’s annual fiscal battles.

The House last month passed legislation that would allow the VA secretary to fire officials with greater ease, approving the measure with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Senate bill offers a similar provision, but Sanders said it would prevent “wholesale political firings,” a concern raised by critics of the House legislation.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing on Thursday to discuss Sanders’s bill. The chairman has not provided an estimate of how much the legislation would cost.

The Senate in February rejected a comprehensive VA bill from Sanders that would have cost a projected $21 billion over 10 years. The measure failed to garner enough Republican votes to waive a VA spending limit established under the budget Congress and President Obama approved in December.

Many of the provisions in the failed legislation are included in Sanders’s new bill.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Washington Post | May 30