Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is pushing a comprehensive legislative package to address “reprehensible” behavior by VA officials and to correct underlying problems in access to medical care.
“There must be a culture of honesty and accountability within the VA and people who have lied or manipulated data must be punished. But we also have to get to the root causes of the problems that have been exposed. The simple truth is that with 2 million more veterans coming into the system in recent years there are many facilities within the VA that do not have the doctors, nurses and other personnel that they need to provide quality care in a timely way.”
Sanders said a Thursday hearing of the veterans committee will consider the Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act of 2014. The measure then could be put on a fast track for consideration by the full Senate. It would give the VA authority to immediately remove senior executives based on poor job performance while preventing wholesale political firings. It would provide veterans who can’t get timely appointments with VA doctors the option of going to community health centers, military hospitals or private doctors. It would authorize VA to lease 27 new health facilities in 18 states. It would authorize emergency funding to hire new doctors, nurses and other providers in order to address system-wide health care provider shortages and to take other steps necessary to ensure timely access to care. To address primary care doctor shortage for the long-term, the bill would authorize the National Health Service Corps to award scholarships to medical school students and to forgive college loans for doctors and nurses who go to work at the VA.
Altogether, the bill would provide education, retirement security and other benefits for millions of veterans and their families. Virtually all of the provisions already have been approved by the Senate committee, many of them by unanimous votes, during previous legislative markup sessions.
Sanders said the need for congressional action was underscored last Wednesday when the VA’s independent Office of Inspector General found that officials had lied about wait times for appointments at the Phoenix VA and other medical facilities. A separate audit delivered to President Barack Obama on Friday disclosed attempts by VA employees at two-thirds of VA hospitals and clinics to cover up delays in providing patient care.
Other provisions in Sanders’ legislative package would:
• Upgrade VA’s antiquated scheduling systems.
• Require President Obama to establish a commission on VA health care access and recommend, within 90 days, actions to bolster capacity.
• Extend comprehensive services and benefits to the most severely injured pre-9/11 veterans; standardize the process for sending patients to community health centers, military hospitals or other health care providers; and extend from five to 10 years access to VA health care for all recently-separated veterans.
• Provide help for veterans who suffered significant spinal cord, reproductive and urinary tract injuries and who now want to have children.
• Bolster the VA’s ongoing effort to eliminate shrinking but still unacceptable backlogs in processing claims for disability benefits.
• Make certain that all veterans get in-state tuition rates for college costs covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
• Improve the delivery of care and benefits to veterans who experienced sexual trauma while in the military.
• Remove the VA from annual budget battles by adopting so-called “advance appropriations” to protect veterans in case of a government shutdown.
• Restore a 1 percent cut in retirement cost-of-living adjustments that Congress enacted for current military service members.
To read a summary of the complete bill, click here.