WASHINGTON — Seeking to overcome Congress’ usual partisan wrangling, lawmakers from opposing parties huddled Wednesday to try to reach a compromise on a legislative response to the VA health care scandal.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, held meetings with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to discuss competing proposals to reduce veterans’ wait times for health care and to expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire employees.
There is bipartisan support in Congress for allowing veterans who are facing long waits for care at VA facilities to see private doctors. But Sanders advocates allowing the VA to hire more doctors and open more facilities to treat veterans, while many Republicans contend that the VA, whose budget has been increased in recent years, has enough money.
Lawmakers are hoping to reach a deal quickly enough to bring a VA reform bill before the Senate as early as Thursday.
The effort to strike a bipartisan deal came as House Republican leaders wrote President Barack Obama calling the VA scandal a “national disgrace” and calling on him to lay out “your vision for reforming what is clearly a broken system.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders complained about the VA’s failure to fully comply with the oversight committee’s request for information.
They also urged the president to support Republican-sponsored legislation that would give any veteran facing a 30-day wait at a VA facility the option to seek private care at VA expense and to persuade the Senate to pass the House-approved VA Management Accountability Act that would expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote senior staff for poor performance.
The accountability measure has drawn criticism from employee groups who warn it could politicize the VA.
“Nothing in the bill prevents a secretary from cleaning house under the guise of performance,” the Senior Executives Association said in a letter to lawmakers. Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, has written his own version of the measure to include protections for employees to prevent “wholesale political firings.”
Lawmakers from both parties have been scrambling to draft legislation to improve veterans’ patient care after a scathing report by the VA inspector general. The report found a systemic problem nationwide in scheduling veterans for health care in a timely manner, including instances where VA staff falsified records to cover up long waits.
In the meantime, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson held his first meeting with veterans’ groups Wednesday, announcing that the VA has contacted 1,586 veterans kept off an official waiting list at the Phoenix VA to schedule their appointments. He plans to travel to Phoenix on Thursday.
“The inspector general confirmed we have real issues when it comes to patient scheduling and access, and we have moved immediately to address those issues in Phoenix,” Gibson said in a statement.
The American Legion is sending a team of experts to Phoenix next week to set up a “Veterans Crisis Command Center.”
“Bereavement counselors at the crisis center will assist family members who have lost loved ones due to VA negligence,” the American Legion said in a statement.