Senate Veterans' Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders on Sunday unveiled his plan for emergency legislation to address the scandal that's enveloped the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The plan from Sanders, a Vermont Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, includes previously announced provisions for enhanced firing authority for senior personnel, but adds due process provisions not in a House-passed bill. The Senate VA panel will hold a hearing about the measure this coming Thursday, with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., having indicated it could soon reach the Senate floor.
The new legislation makes it less likely that a bipartisan House VA accountability bill that passed that chamber with 390 votes will be taken up on the floor of the Senate.
"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' legislation calls for overhauling the VA appointment scheduling computer system, setting a deadline of the end of the first-quarter of 2016 to get that into place. It would authorize 27 major medical facility leases at locations throughout the country. It also would grant an emergency authorization for funds to hire additional medical personnel to help address the claims backlog and the delays that veterans have faced in getting access to health care services.
Sanders was also among the guests who appeared on the CBS program Face the Nation to discuss the crisis at the VA and Friday's resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki. On that program, he highlighted the new legislation's provisions allowing for veterans facing long lines to make use of private medical facilities.
Sanders said on CBS that the legislation would likely be introduced by Tuesday.
According to the bill summary, the measure contains many provisions modeled on previous omnibus veterans health legislation. When Sanders brought legislation to the Senate floor in February, it fell on a budgetary point of order following a 56-41 vote on a motion to waive the budget rules that fell short of the needed 60 votes, thanks to Republican opposition. That bill had a discretionary price tag of about $18.3 billion, mainly offset using the so-called future savings in overseas contingency operations account associated with ending the war in Afghanistan.
The earlier bill also reached the floor in the heat of a debate over whether to allow a vote on new sanctions against Iran, a provision included in a GOP alternative.
"In order to reach out for bipartisan support, some provisions were modified and others were removed, which significantly brings down the cost of this section of the bill when compared to the previous version," the summary of the new legislation said.
A full summary of the VA legislation has been posted here.