WASHINGTON — Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders unveiled Sunday a broad proposal to revamp health care for 6.5 million veterans as the department faces an expanding investigation into the way care is provided at VA medical facilities.
"The truth is that when people get into the VA, the quality of care is good. The problem that we have to address is access to the system and waiting lines," Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, said on CBS'sFace the Nation.
A hearing on the proposal will occur Thursday, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said the Senate could move quickly to vote on it.
Sanders' bill would make it easier for veterans to receive treatment outside of the VA system if timely care is not available. A preliminary investigation revealed last week that VA facilities have altered medical records to hide delays of nearly four months for patients to see a doctor. The proposal would allow veterans to seek treatment at community health centers, military hospitals, or from private doctors.
It requires the VA to begin "agile development" of new administrative software to better process patients and monitor wait times to be completed by March 2016. The proposal also authorizes the VA to lease 27 new health facilities across 18 states and Puerto Rico, as well as includes additional funding to hire health care providers to address systemic shortages in available care. It also includes college loan forgiveness for doctors and nurses who go work at the VA.
Republicans have been pressuring the Senate to vote on a House-passed measure that would grant the VA secretary more authority to fire people, and Sanders' proposal includes similar language. However, the package is likely to be met with some measure of GOP resistance because it requires additional spending.
Sanders does not include a price tag in his initial proposal, but leading House Republicans, including Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., are resistant to authorizing more money to fix the problem. The most recent House-passed spending bill includes a total of $158.2 billion in funding, an increase of $10.3 billion from the previous fiscal year.
House Republicans have already approved bills to grant greater firing authority and end bonuses for senior executives. Miller is working on legislation that would also make it easier for veterans to seek treatment outside of the VA system if they've been waiting longer than 30 days.
Sanders' proposal also includes reforms that are outside the scope of the problems surrounding wait times. For example, his proposal would expand coverage to veterans who have suffered spinal cord, reproductive or urinary tract injuries to help start a family, as well as improve care for victims of sexual assault. Another proposal would make certain that veterans get in-state tuition rates for college.