WASHINGTON — Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders introduced a far-reaching proposal Sunday to overhaul health care for the nation's veterans that would make it easier for the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs to hire and fire employees, lease new space for clinics and hospitals, and send veterans to outside providers if care is not available within 30 days.
Sanders's bill, the Restoring Veterans' Trust Act, would give the VA secretary the authority to remove senior officials based on poor job performance, grant VA expedited hiring authority for nurses and doctors, authorize the department to lease 27 new facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico, mandate a software upgrade for the department's patient-scheduling system by March 2016 and expand opportunities for eligible veterans to seek outside care if VA facilities are unavailable.
"The truth is that when people get into the VA, the quality of care is good," Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "The problem that we have to address is access to the system and waiting lines."
A hearing on the bill chaired by Sanders is scheduled for Thursday, meaning it will be at least another week before the Senate takes action on measures designed to address allegations of mismanaged and delayed care at dozens of VA facilities nationwide that forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign on Friday.
Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Richard Burr of North Carolina, have announced plans to introduce a series of proposals as soon as Tuesday but have not specified what they might include.
McCain said Sunday on Face the Nation that he supports giving veterans the option to seek medical care from non-VA doctors.
"Why should a veteran have to get into a van and ride three hours to get to Phoenix in order to have routine medical care taken care of?" he said.
Sanders' bill also addresses a host of issues not directly raised by recent allegations that led to Shinseki's ouster.
It would authorize expanded dental care for veterans, restore full cost-of-living adjustments for military pensions, provide assistance to veterans who were sexually assaulted while serving, and require advance, multiyear appropriations for VA operations.