Senators propose competing bills to fix VA problems

Similar VA accountability bills from Sens. Bernie Sanders and John McCain could be an opportunity for a rare moment of bipartisanship -- or yet another partisan stumbling block for the upper chamber.

Gabrielle Levy
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks at a press conference on the proposed Veterans Affairs bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on June 3, 2014. UPI/Kevin Dietsch
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks at a press conference on the proposed Veterans Affairs bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on June 3, 2014. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo

WASHINGTON, June 3 (UPI) -- Sens. Bernie Sanders and John McCain proposed competing bills this week in an effort to repair some of the problems plaguing the Veterans Affairs health system.

Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, released the details of his plan over the weekend. The Restoring Veterans' Trust Act would authorize the VA secretary to remove executives and standardize the process of sending veterans to private care if they cannot get appointments within a short period of time.


The Veterans Choice Act, sponsored by McCain, R-Ariz., would also authorize the VA secretary to fire senior officials and allow veterans to seek outside care. McCain Tuesday at a press conference said that the difference between his bill and Sanders' is that his bill would issue veterans a choice card, which would allow them to get private medical care from any Medicare or Tricare provider if they are unable to get an appointment within 30 days.

The McCain bill is co-sponsored by several other Republicans, including his Arizona colleague Sen. Jeff Flake, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Oklahoma Sens. Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.

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"To me it would seem that if you're a combat veteran of this country, you ought to be the first in line not the last in line," Coburn, a physician, said.

Coburn said he believes the VA's problem is not with money -- in fact, former Secretary Eric Shinseki repeatedly told Congress he had all the funding he needed -- and would have nearly half a billion dollars to spare this year alone. Citing a study from the Annals for Family Medicine, Coburn said primary care physicians in the VA see approximately half the number of patients as the average practitioner outside the VA.

"That's a management competency-level issue," he said.

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There appears to be unusual bipartisan will to find some solution to a mountain VA scandal, in which the department's inspector general is investigating 42 facilities throughout the country on allegations of mismanagement, including the secret lists used to distort the times veterans waited to get an appointment. However, bickering over whose bill will take precedence has already begun.

"What we should do is what we did for years," McCain said. "Have a bill come to the floor, have a debate, have amendments, have a project, sit down in conference with the House, come up with an agreement which could be done within a week, if we did it the right way, and we could give the American people what they need."

"Unfortunately," he said, "it may be games-playing on the part of Harry Reid again, and that's disgraceful."

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After the Republican press conference Tuesday, Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., said he had offered a vote on a House-passed VA bill, which would give the secretary the power to fire executives, in exchange for a vote on the Sanders bill.

(UPI has reached out to Sen. McCain's office for a response.)

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