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Despite scandal, VA changes will be hard to enact

By Leo Shane III 
Military Times Staff writer
Jun. 3, 2014 - 04:01PM

Lawmakers from both parties want major changes in how the Veterans Affairs Department operates — and that will make it difficult to enact any changes at all.

Senate Democrats and Republicans this week are offering competing plans for VA reform, including making it easier to fire top department officials and cutting wait times for veterans in need of health care.

But they’re also accusing each other of using veterans to score political points, instead of supporting meaningful change.

On Tuesday, a group of Senate Republicans unveiled their latest proposed departmental overhaul, which would ease rules for veterans seeing private-sector doctors instead of VA physicians, provide more accurate wait-time data in VA hospitals, and ease rules for firing top department officials.

“What we have right now is a system that isn’t working,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “This bill … is about maintaining the VA and making it better.”

The GOP measure would “sunset” after two years and is “very targeted” to address the immediate problems facing the department, according to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

The move comes two days before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee reviews an update of the massive veterans omnibus bill sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would also make it easier to fire top VA officials (while granting additional appeals) and authorize the department to lease 27 new health facilities to help reduce patient wait times.

It also would provide advance appropriations to VA, extend comprehensive services for the most severely injured pre-9/11 veterans, provide in-state tuition for veterans at any private schools — and cost potentially billions of dollars over the next decade, a price tag that Senate Republicans have so far called unacceptable.

Sanders’ measure failed to gain Republican support when it came to the Senate floor earlier this year, but both he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have pledged to renew their push in light of the recent VA scandals.

Last week, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign following weeks of criticism and internal reports showing wait times for medical appointments were being manipulated by administrators to cover up problems and, in some cases, earn them bigger bonuses.

On Monday, Reid blasted Senate Republicans for caring more about inflating the scandal than helping veterans, criticizing GOP opposition to the cost of Sanders’ proposal.

“Certain Republican members of Congress are content to scapegoat the VA,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “Even more disappointing is the fact that these same Republicans have, through their obstruction, deprived the VA of essential resources it needs to help veterans.”

Republicans behind Tuesday’s legislation bristled at that suggestion. Burr said the problem isn’t finances — although the GOP bill would require no new funding — but instead finding immediate solutions to VA’s problems.

Last month, House members from both parties overwhelmingly backed legislation giving the VA secretary broad authority to fire senior department officials. But instead of passing that stand-alone measure, Senate Democrats so far have opted to back Sanders’ bill — with all of the other issues included.

Several house members also have proposed bills to allow veterans easier access to private doctors instead of VA physicians. The White House announced two weeks ago it would look for ways to expand use of existing authorities to get veterans waiting on VA into available private care.

Without naming names, Republicans behind the new measure said they believe their idea has bipartisan support, but also noted that they expect Senate leadership to block efforts to bring the measure to a full chamber vote.