WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday unveiled their plan to repair the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs health care system by weeding out wrongdoing and expanding access to private care.
The bill allows veterans to choose a private provider if they live far from VA facilities or have difficulty getting timely care. It also gives the VA secretary more leeway to fire senior executives and forces the department to set new punishments for employees who falsify records, according to McCain and co-sponsors Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
The Republicans floated the legislation just a day after Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with the Democrats, filed a wide-ranging VA reform bill that would also provides wider access to private care and more authority for the VA secretary to remove incompetent executives.
“Unlike Sen. Sanders’ bill, this addresses the root cause of the current VA scandal,” which is long waiting times for patients to receive care, and employee wrongdoing, McCain said.
The senators claimed their bill is more focused than Sanders’ legislation, which also covers physician hiring, facility leases, scholarships, software upgrades, cost-of-living assistance adjustments for servicemembers, tuition assistance and a raft of other issues.
Congress has been grappling with how to fix the VA health care system after a whistleblower revealed that off-the-books wait lists at a Phoenix hospital might be linked to the deaths of 40 veterans. A VA inspector general report last week found the potentially dangerous patient scheduling abuses were systemic in the department.
The Republican said their bill would reduce waiting times for care by giving veterans an access card that could be used at a provider of their choice if they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic, or the VA cannot provide an appointment within two weeks, its stated standard.
Also, the bill closely follows legislation passed in the House last month giving the VA secretary power to fire or demote senior executives without going through the usual administrative process, which requires any actions to be based on formal performance reviews, according to a summary of the bill supplied by McCain’s office. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., was passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support.
The department would also be required to create a new policy outlining punishments including civil penalties, unpaid suspensions and termination for VA employees who falsify records related to patient wait times and health care quality.
The IG investigation in Phoenix discovered that 1,700 veterans — 54 percent — seeking primary care were left off official electronic waiting lists until shortly before they could be seen by medical staff, which created the appearance the hospital was meeting VA goals for shorter wait times. In a small sample of veterans, 84 percent waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment.
It was unclear Tuesday how the Republicans’ and Sanders’ bills would be reconciled.
“We’re willing to listen to debate and amendments, and if (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid will agree to that, I think we could get a veterans’ health choice bill through this Senate in a week,” McCain said.
Sanders’ office said the senator had been considering a new trimmed down bill even before the GOP press conference Tuesday.
The new bill might focus primarily on new powers for the VA secretary to fire and demote senior executives but could also include some other popular measures that are not yet decided, a spokesman said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., proposed a bill in the Senate last month that focused on eliminating what lawmakers feel is an entrenched and poorly performing VA bureaucracy by giving the VA secretary more power to fire executives, who are part of a special class of federal employee with specific rules on how they can be let go or demoted.
But his attempt at a floor vote was blocked by Sanders, who said the issue needed more discussion.
On Tuesday, Rubio again urged Reid, D-Nev., to allow a vote on his reform bill, which he said is backed by 10 Democrats in the chamber.
“Their backing means there is currently a strong bipartisan support for this legislation,” Rubio said in a released statement, “which would bring accountability to VA and empower the leadership therein to make the same hiring and firing decisions you enjoy as a United States senator with your own staff.”