Lawmakers rush to craft bill on veterans health crisis

WASHINGTON Wed Jun 4, 2014 6:52pm EDT

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 3, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 3, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers engaged in rare bipartisan talks on Wednesday about legislation to address delays in the delivery of health care for military veterans.

The discussions sparked optimism that Republicans and Democrats can quickly strike a deal for a bill that would ensure immediate care for veterans and give the Obama administration greater authority to fire employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Aides to Senate Democrats said a vote on a compromise measure could come as early as Thursday.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who chairs the chamber's Veterans Affairs Committee, met with Republican Senator John McCain and Representative Jeff Miller to try to work out differences between competing proposals to fix widespread problems in the VA's health care system.

Veterans groups had expressed concern that Sanders's ambitions for a comprehensive package of VA reforms would get bogged down in election-year partisan politics, but the groups were encouraged by the lawmakers' shift in focus toward smaller, targeted bills.

"They're going to be forced to start to work together. It's certainly a very positive step," said Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion.

The flurry of activity comes less than a week after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid the scandal over widespread schemes to mask the care delays and protect staff bonus awards and salary increases.

In Phoenix, where cover-up schemes first surfaced, doctors said that 40 veterans had died while waiting for care.

Acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson will visit Phoenix VA facilities on Thursday and told veterans groups that officials have now reached out to 1,700 veterans waiting for care appointments, the VA said.

More details of problems elsewhere surfaced on Wednesday as Kansas Senator Pat Roberts released a VA document showing 108 veterans faced care delays at some facilities in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois.

House Speaker John Boehner sought to keep the pressure on President Barack Obama for VA changes, asking him in a letter to urge Senate Democrats to pass Republican reform bills.

The White House is considering Toby Cosgrove, head of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, as a possible candidate to run the VA, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he believes that Sanders is open to moving some VA reforms more quickly than others.

"The hope is that some type of a compromise can be reached that can pass the Senate and quickly pass the House," he told reporters after their meeting.

But key differences remain. A House-passed measure sponsored by Miller provides the VA secretary authority to fire employees or demote them at will for poor performance, while Sanders wants to maintain some employment safeguards.

A plan from Arizona's McCain would give veterans a new "choice card" option that would allow them to seek private care, while Sanders wants to keep VA care in-house as much as possible. Some lawmakers also want a provision authorizing leases to open 27 delayed VA outpatient clinics.

(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Writing by David Lawder; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ken Wills)

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Comments (7)
Art16 wrote:
The VA is a very large organization, and like a big ship, may not change direction as fast as some would like or expect. That is not to say that what has happened is not flat out wrong. There is an attitude problem in the VA as well that has tolerated their bizarre schemes and underhanded ways of deflecting patient care for the benefit of internal functionaries. It is sick on the surface and sick deep withing the organization. I wish people the best of luck in fixing it, but we need to remember that it took time to bring it where it is today. Also, do not loose sight that the VA offices in Washington may not be clean in this matter as well.

Jun 04, 2014 4:17pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
AlkalineState wrote:
Republicans kill 5,200 soldiers, injure 100,000 soldiers in 2 bogus wars (to create democracy)….. now outraged. Outraged! that there is a cluster at the VA.

Ask Halliburton Where-da-money-went.

Jun 04, 2014 7:24pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
slnsimhan wrote:
Here again, yelling and screaming by opportunits! Obviously Mr. NcCain had no first hand knowlwedge or experience as a patient of VA hospitals to know how typical Govt organizations work or constrained to work; why would he know – he gets first class healthcare and is busy going to places (Syria, Afganistan, Libya and Ukraine)where potential conflicts can be fueled to fund military spending to support his profitable US arms manufacturers. I do not see any reason why VA would be any different from county healthcare clinics and charity hospitals with small budgets and limited facilities trying mostly out of compassion to help patients? I suppose the higher military ranks and the top officials get to be treated in army hospitals in DC. Rise up vetarans – ask for what you desrve. If you do not participate you will be left out even by your own superiors like McCain who rises up to only criticize and to being proactive. An honest dedicated politician sizes uop problems before they occur and provide guidance and keep criticisms in his agenda eevn under part pressure! Why not make all the Govt officials and especially the senators and congressmen and their families be mandated to be treated by VA – ha ha – supported by the US Govt? Won’t that improve these facilties to first class hospitals and budget approvals will not be a problem from the congress. Wow!

Jun 04, 2014 7:43pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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