Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced Friday that he will introduce a bill to hold top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs accountable for performance problems and re-introduce comprehensive VA legislation that failed in February.
The accountability measure, which comes amid widespread allegations that VA hospitals have covered up treatment delays, would represent the Senate’s response to a House bill that passed this week with strong bipartisan support.
The House and Senate versions both would give the VA secretary greater authority to fire senior executives, but Sanders said his legislation would include additional language ensuring due process protections for officials who face removal or demotions.
Sanders, who heads the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said his office is working with the White House to draft the proposal. The administration signaled this week that President Obama supports the general goals behind the House bill but wants lawmakers to tweak some of the provisions.
Critics have said the House measure would remove the due process protections that serve as as a barrier against politicization of the federal government’s senior-executive workforce, in addition to deterring top-caliber professionals from working for the VA.
The Senior Executives Association on Friday said it is disappointed that Sanders’s proposal would include an “ill-advised and unnecessary” accountability measure. The group also expressed skepticism about the lawmaker’s promise of language to ensure due process protections.
“While a due process provision would be fair, the association hasn’t seen it, and, as they say, the devil is in the details,” SEA president Carol Bonosaro said in a statement.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who sponsored the House bill, said in a statement Friday that he is unfamiliar with the specifics of the Senate measure but pleased that Sanders “shares the goal of providing the VA secretary with the tools to ensure failing VA executives are punished — rather than rewarded — for mismanagement and negligence that harms veterans.”
Sanders’s comprehensive VA bill would have repealed a controversial military-pension cut for new troops and expanded veterans benefits, including dental and medical care, educational assistance and the caretaker stipends that currently apply to only post-Sept. 11 veterans. The combined provisions were estimated to cost $21 billion over 10 years.
The measure died in February after failing to win enough Republican votes to waive a limit on VA spending established under the budget Congress and President Obama approved in December. Some GOP lawmakers expressed concerns about the costs and the idea of adding more veterans to a VA system that is already struggling to keep up with demands.
Sanders has argued that the government should not send troops to war if it cannot afford to care for them when they return.
The senator said in a statement on Friday: “Congress must do everything possible to make certain that the VA has the financial resources and administrative accountability to provide the high-quality health care and timely access to care that our veterans earned and deserve.”
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