The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is banking on the VA scandal as an opportunity to resurrect a behemoth veterans’ bill blocked by Republicans in February.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced his 352-page bill in January, calling it “one of the most comprehensive pieces of veterans legislation that has been introduced in decades,” including full dental coverage, the extension of the VA enrollment period from five years to 10 for newly separated service members, the restoration of full cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, and the extension of caregiver benefits — currently offered for post-9/11 veterans — to all wars.
Under the massive bill, veterans without a service-related disability who can only get insurance through the Obamacare exchanges could enroll in the VA healthcare system instead. Veterans would get all immunizations recommended by the CDC, would be eligible for expanded chiropractic and alternative medicine treatments, and could get fitness center memberships paid for through a two-year pilot program. Fertility treatment would be covered and veterans whose infertility is related to military service would receive adoption assistance. The bill would also activate an advanced appropriations process to ensure that budget tie-ups don’t keep disabled veterans from getting their checks.
It included everything but the pay-fors, and Sanders acknowledged at the time that his plan was an “expensive program.” At the time, Sanders expressed a desire to skim off the Overseas Contingency Operations fund as the war in Afghanistan winds down and funding exceeds current Congressional Budget Office estimates. “The final decision of the pay-for is not mine alone,” he added, noting the OCO is “a reasonable source.”
The bill failed to clear a procedural vote 56-41 in February.
Now, as the VA scandal unfolds, Sanders has refashioned his bill, which a Sanders spokesman said Tuesday could come to the floor for a vote as early as this week.
The planned Thursday hearing of the Veterans Affairs Committee to quickly mark up the bill was postponed this morning to an undetermined date, but a Sanders spokesman said this morning it “now appears that there will be floor action Thursday on veterans issues.”
Sanders said Sunday that the need for quick action was underscored by the VA inspector general’s initial findings last week that the waitlist scandal extended well beyond Phoenix.
Provisions in the revamped bill, according to Sanders’ office, would upgrade VA’s antiquated scheduling systems, require President Obama to establish a commission on VA healthcare access, ensure in-state tuition rates for college costs covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and improve the delivery of care and benefits to veterans who experienced sexual trauma while in the military.
It still includes key features from the original bill, including advance approrpriations and restoring a 1 percent cut in retirement cost-of-living adjustments that Congress enacted for current military service members.
“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,” Sanders said. “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 is likely to face opposition from lawmakers who aren’t keen at this point to pour money into what’s viewed as a broken system, and instead could focus on numerous VA reform proposals floating around including giving veterans the option to go outside the system for care.
A bill introduced by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, would give veterans the choice to use private doctors or facilities as alternatives to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities if the VA cannot schedule an appointment for an eligible veteran within a reasonable period of time or if the veteran resides more than 40 miles from any VA hospital or clinic.
“This begins to give veterans the same choices for their health care that our country has given them for higher education since the G.I. Bill was enacted in 1944,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said. “Fundamentally, if a veteran lives more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or has to wait more than a reasonable number of days, the veteran can receive care from a doctor or provider of his or her choice.”
Sponsor Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is pushing for a vote on the VA Management and Accountability Act of 2014, a bill that would empower whomever may replace Secretary Eric Shinseki with complete authority to fire or demote employees based on performance.
It’s co-sponsored by 10 Dems: Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Mark Warner (Va.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jean Shaheen (N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Al Franken (Minn.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and John Walsh (Mont.).
“As the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, you and you alone control what legislation is brought before the Senate for a vote. In this important role, you can make a vital difference in the reforms that are needed to improve the quality of care our nation’s heroes receive,” Rubio wrote yesterday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“This legislation alone will not solve all the problems at the VA. Problems which, to be fair, existed before President Obama took office. But this legislation will take an important step forward in helping reform this broken government institution,” Rubio said. “It might also help restore some faith in the Senate’s ability to achieve even incremental reform to a government that too many Americans believe is no longer capable of even the most basic functions.”