Senate and House Ironing Out Differences on VA Reform
Around the State
This week, the conferencing between the two chambers of Congress started over reforming the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with leading politicians from Florida playing prominent roles.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., one of the leading Democrats on the Veterans Affairs Committee, serve on the conference committee on the House side. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is on the committee from the Senate.
Both versions of the VA reform legislation respond to the recent reports of altered waiting lists at VA medical facilities across the country which led to the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki. The bills would give veterans options to pursue private health care if they have to wait too long for VA treatment and would give the VA secretary more room to fire incompetent employees.
But there are some minor differences between the two versions, with the Senate option adding more VA medical centers across the nation and both sides offering different takes on how much the cost would be for giving veterans more private care options.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., led the conference committee meeting on Tuesday and said he expected “to pass a significant piece of legislation which addresses some of the very serious problems currently facing the VA” in spite of a “very partisan environment here in Congress."
Sanders agreed both bills would provide “access to health care for veterans in a timely manner" and provide safeguards for holding dishonest or incompetent senior officials accountable.
“We will not accept VA officials lying about wait times or falsifying data,” Sanders said. “We will not accept honest whistleblowers who want to improve the system having their concerns ignored."
Miller tore into the VA for its recent mistakes. “By the department’s own admission, the VA health-care system is suffering from widespread wrongdoing and systemic lack of integrity,” Miller said. “Veterans by the thousands have been left to wait weeks, months, and even years for the care they have earned and deserve.Tragically, intolerably, some of those veterans died before they could receive the care they required. For them, the work we begin today is too late.
But for those veterans still waiting, our work begins not a moment too soon. The bureaucratic failures that brought us to this point are legion and can only be solved by meaningful reform enacted after close and careful consideration and face to face deliberation by both bodies.”
Calling the conference “historically bipartisan," Miller added, “we have differences that will need to be addressed as we move forward; all of us share the same primary goals." Miller said those goals included ensuring “our nation’s veterans have timely access to high-quality health care" and making sure “VA leaders and employees are held accountable for actions that harm veteran patients.”
“The work we do in this committee will impact the way in which this country’s second largest bureaucracy operates and the manner in which veterans throughout the country receive needed care for years to come," Miller added.
Sanders also sounded optimistic the two chambers could reach an agreement. “I am pleased that, in reality, there are more similarities than differences between the two bills and I am confident that we can reach an agreement that will be satisfactory to everyone," Sanders said. “Our nation’s veterans deserve no less.”
While he does not sit on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Rubio is part of the conference committee due to his role in sponsoring VA reform legislation.
“I’m pleased that both the House and the Senate have been able to act on legislation to reform the VA, and bring us to this point of ironing out the differences between the two proposals," Rubio said. “Hopefully, the president will have a final VA reform bill that he can sign into law.”
Rubio pointed to his home state as one of the reasons why reforming the VA is so important to him.
“I represent the state of Florida, which is home to almost 2 million veterans. We have numerous VA medical centers and facilities all over the state,” Rubio said. “Recently, we’ve seen some major problems uncovered at some of these VA facilities, with six of them now among the 112 that are being investigated nationwide for potentially manipulating patient schedules in order to conceal long waiting periods for veterans seeking care."
Rubio also showcased his and Miller’s proposal to allow the VA secretary to fire underperforming employees.
“If VA officials are not doing their jobs – and if they are deliberately trying to conceal how poorly they are doing their jobs – they should be fired,” Rubio said. “As I’ve talked to people about this bill in recent months, most have been surprised that you even need a new law to make this possible. Because it’s common sense in practically every other workplace in America. It sends a terrible message – to our veterans, to American taxpayers and to the vast majority of VA employees who are doing a good job – to let incompetent officials get away with poor performance. And worst of all, poor performance at the VA doesn’t just hurt employee morale; it actually endangers the lives of veterans.
“So I’m hoping that, with all the issues we’ll be dealing with in this conference committee negotiation, that this particular measure won’t become a sticking point,” Rubio added. “I’m hoping that the final bill ultimately ensures that, going forward, incompetence at the VA will be dealt with fairly – but swiftly.”
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org.