The Washington Post

VA bills progressing quickly in Congress

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters is seen on May 28, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Congress is moving uncharacteristically fast to address the Department of Veterans Affairs’ scheduling crisis, with the House on Tuesday passing a stand-alone bill that would allow the VA to tackle treatment delays with help from the private sector and the Senate preparing to debate legislation that would enact broad changes for the agency.

The developments came one day after the VA released the results of a nationwide audit that found that more than 100,000 veterans are experiencing extensive wait times for care and that about 13 percent of VA schedulers were told to falsify appointment-request dates, further confirming allegations that VA medical centers have manipulated appointment records to hide treatment delays.

The House bill, sponsored by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), would allow any VA-eligible veteran who has been waiting for an appointment for more than 30 days to seek medical care outside the government network.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) submitted their own bipartisan proposal on Monday to address the scheduling crisis and other veterans issues.

“At a time when 2 million more veterans have come into the VA in the last four years, our job is to make certain that there are enough doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals to meet their needs,” Sanders said Tuesday. “My hope is that the Senate bill gets to the floor as soon as possible, hopefully tomorrow.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the measure could be taken up within the next two days. “We’re not going to be able to spend the next couple weeks on it. It’s something we need to be done. It’s urgent that we get this done to resolve some of the outstanding issues within the VA,” he told reporters.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) predicted that GOP senators would overwhelmingly support the bill. But he and other Republicans urged Democrats who control the Senate to take up the veterans bill before considering a measure that would help students pay down college loans — a proposal popular with Democratic base voters that Republicans have vowed to block.

Miller signaled support for the Sanders-McCain bill, noting that it largely mirrors a series of similar stand-alone proposals the House approved in recent months.

“I would say 85 to 90 percent of the Senate agreement will have already passed the House,” he said in an interview. “This is an emergency, and every day we delay in passing legislation that can be signed by the president is only adding to the crisis.”

Some House Republicans will have concerns with the potential costs of allowing veterans to seek medical care outside the VA network, but Miller said: “Nobody should be using this as a political hammer. We should be using it as a hammer to change the system. But we don’t need to be political in the way that we solve the problem.”

The Senate measure includes language that would allow the next VA secretary to fire or demote senior officials found to be responsible for mismanaging or delaying medical care to veterans. A similar proposal passed the House, but the Senate version would allow a VA worker to appeal and receive a decision within a month’s time.

Miller said he would prefer not to allow VA workers to appeal decisions to remove them, but added, “It would be foolish for us to have 90 percent on the table and vote against it. If it takes a compromise with Senator Sanders, then that’s what it takes.”

Meanwhile, the VA plans to continue addressing its scheduling and access-to-care issues with a series of actions the agency outlined on Monday.

The department noted several limitations to its recent audit and warned against “over-interpretation” of the findings. It said, for instance, that the review was completed in just five days and that certain questions may have been misunderstood.

The VA said it plans to commission an independent audit of its scheduling practices to go along with the agency’s review and the investigation by its inspector general. It also plans to post data on wait times twice a month and establish a program to measure patient satisfaction.

Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.
Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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