Senators took fresh steps this week in the slow effort to overhaul the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department and hold it more accountable just as news broke of a new scandal -- cockroaches in food at a VA hospital in Chicago.
"Almost every morning there's a story on the news about some other failure at a VA hospital," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee.
He said the Chicago story was "just another failure of care for our veterans that we need to see stopped."
Nearly every member of Isakson's committee joined him on Thursday to unveil the Veterans First Act, the product of nearly a year of negotiations stemming from scandal over patient care at VA hospitals.
The bipartisan bill combines other pieces of legislation aimed at increasing accountability, including lowering barriers to hire and fire senior executives, expanding health care programs, protecting whistle-blowers, reviewing the use of prescription drugs, increasing access to disability compensation, and expanding access to education.
Isakson said leaders from both parties were aware of the legislation but declined to say when it might be considered, especially in light of the constrained congressional calendar in an election year.
He also could not recall the cost of the legislation, but said savings are included in the bill and veterans benefits would not be cut.
The VA health administration serves more than 8.7 million veterans annually, according to agency figures.
The committee's announcement came a day after a group of Republican senators announced plans to introduce legislation of their own -- the Care Veterans Deserve Act, which would seek to address the persistent problem of lengthy wait times for health care.
Two years ago, alarming shortcomings centered around delayed care and administrative oversight at some VA hospitals were uncovered. The scandal led to the resignation of Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki, and prompted hearings and congressional action to address the problems.
But a 2o14 overhaul law has not been effectively implemented, prompting the new legislative efforts.
"It's a little bit like fixing a plane while you're flying it," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs panel.
"This system can be and must be improved and this measure will help advance its efficiency and its fairness," he said of the committee proposal.
The VA has said that challenges remain, but noted improvements in reducing a backlog in disability claims as well as wait times for medical appointments. In a statement on Thursday, the agency highlighted the committee bill, but noted that it lacked some VA priorities.
"There is much to support in the bill, and we appreciate the collaboration with the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and other stakeholders. However, the bill does not include much needed legislation to reform the outdated and inefficient appeals process or establish a comprehensive approach for consolidation of community care in order to streamline the complex approval process for veterans, employees, and providers," the agency said.