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Competing proposals to address issues at VA take shape in Senate

WASHINGTON — Senators are expected to turn attention this week to competing plans to revamp the Department of Veterans Affairs following the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.

With Shinseki's quick departure last week, it could take Congress weeks, if not months, to sort out how to help the beleaguered department address delayed appointments, mismanaged care and a sustained backlog of requests for benefits.

Democrats are rallying around a comprehensive proposal by Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. His Restoring Veterans' Trust Act would give the VA secretary the authority to remove senior officials based on poor job performance, grant the department expedited hiring authority for nurses and doctors, authorize it to lease 27 new facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico, and make several other changes.

Senate Democrats also have not ruled out quickly passing a measure that would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire or demote senior managers found responsible for mismanaged or delayed care, according to senior aides familiar with potential plans. A similar measure easily passed the House almost two weeks ago.

Other Democrats are urging bolder action. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq combat veteran, on Monday wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to use executive powers to immediately permit veterans to access medical care outside the VA system, if necessary.

"To make any veteran wait for medical care is not only an emergency, it is a travesty," she wrote.

On Tuesday, Republican senators are planning to announce the Veterans Choice Act, which would allow veterans to seek medical appointments outside the VA system under certain conditions.

Members of the Veterans' Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the Sanders measure Thursday. In an interview late last week as he was finalizing his proposal, Sanders said that he supports the idea of making it easier to punish poor-performing managers but that he wants to ensure that it would not lead to the politicization of the department.

"The nightmare could be under the current bill that passed the House that a new president comes in and they fire hundreds of high-ranking VA officials without due process or particular reason," Sanders said. "I think you cannot run a health-care system the size of the VA like that. You want to be able to get rid of people at the VA who are incompetent in a very rapid way, but you have to have due process."

The Sanders bill also addresses a host of issues not directly raised by recent allegations that led to Shinseki's exit. His measure would expand dental care for veterans, restore full cost-of-living adjustments for military retirement pensions, provide assistance to veterans who are sexually assaulted or raped while serving, and require advance, multi-year appropriations for VA operations. In the House, several of those issues have been part of smaller bills that have passed in recent months.

Details of the Senate GOP proposal were unclear Monday, but House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is also working on legislation that would allow VA-eligible veterans to seek care outside the system if they have to wait more than 30 days to seek medical treatment. The idea is popular among members of both parties.

"VA has a very important role," Miller told reporters last week. "There are so many things that VA does well and only VA can do, and that's to care for those who have in fact borne the battle, that have the wounds of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, amputations, spinal-cord injuries. The VA should be able to take care of those. But there are some things that you can do in the private sector, and the veteran needs to have the option."

House Republicans are expected to highlight the measures when they meet with constituents this week during a week-long recess. A tally provided by the House Veterans' Affairs Committee lists nine bills passed in recent months to address veterans' education, employment and health issues. In addition to the bill making it easier for the VA secretary to fire or demote certain senior managers, there is the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2014, which would provide further tuition assistance to military service members who joined the ranks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There's also the Ruth Moore Act, which would allow veterans who were sexually assaulted or raped while serving in uniform to receive service-connected benefits and treatment for mental-health conditions linked to sexual trauma.
 

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