Senate to take up new VA bill after scandal

WASHINGTON — Details of a refashioned bill to address the problems plaguing the federally run veterans’ health care system were released Sunday by its sponsor, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, posted a summary of his bill Sunday and said it would be introduced this week.

The bill includes several new provisions aimed at fixing the long delays for veterans’ care. The long-simmering issue erupted into a scandal in April and led to last week’s resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki after a federal investigation into the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official waiting list.

The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems throughout the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.

Sanders said in a statement issued Sunday that while the people who have lied or manipulated data must be punished, “we also need to get to the root causes of the problems that have been exposed.”

The bill would allow veterans facing long delays to seek care outside the VA, at private doctors’ offices, military bases or community health centers. It also authorizes emergency funding to hire new doctors and nurses and would provide scholarships or forgive college loans for doctors and nurses who go to work at the VA. In addition, it would give the department authority to fire poor-performing executives, but not as broadly as a bill passed in the House and defeated in the Senate last month.

An earlier version of Sanders’ bill did not have enough support to pass in February.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Sunday that the key to fixing the problem was giving veterans the flexibility to get the care they need at the closest, most available place.

“And that’s the solution to this problem is flexibility to the veteran to choose their health care, just like other people under other health care plans have the — are able to do,” McCain, a Vietnam veteran, said on CBS’ Face the Nation. “Why doesn’t that veteran have a card and go to the caregiver that he or she needs and wants?”

The VA spent about $4.8 billion last year on medical care at non-VA hospitals and clinics. That amounts to about 10 percent of health care costs for the Veterans Health Administration.

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