June 3 (Bloomberg) -- Veterans would avoid long waits for medical care under a plan offered by Senator John McCain and other Republicans after reports of widespread delays for appointments at veterans’ hospitals.
The proposal outlined today by McCain contrasts with a plan backed by Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, in which veterans’ hospitals would receive $2 billion in emergency funds to hire doctors and nurses. The Democratic plan would authorize leases for nearly 30 new medical facilities.
“The American people are deeply angered and are demanding that we make changes to fix this problem,” McCain, an Arizona Republican, said at a news conference today in Washington.
Veterans’ health care is a front-and-center issue in Congress after an investigation found systemic mismanagement, treatment delays and falsified records throughout hospitals that treat 8.3 million veterans. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last week, and the issue is being used in campaign ads before the November congressional elections.
McCain said he plans to meet with Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, author of the plan backed by Reid, prior to a Veterans Affairs Committee hearing scheduled for June 5 on the proposal.
Reid said today that he hoped Republicans would agree to hold a vote on Sanders’s plan this week. McCain, though, said Republicans would want to offer amendments.
Sanders, chairman of the Veterans Affairs panel, proposes making it easier to remove senior VA officials, allowing the VA to lease 27 new medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico, and authorizing emergency funds to hire doctors and nurses, according to a summary of the bill.
“We should pass Senator Sanders’s bill as soon as possible,” Reid said yesterday on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
McCain presented Republicans’ alternative along with Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate veterans’ affairs panel.
Their plan would give veterans a “choice” card allowing them to receive care from non-VA providers under certain circumstances.
“This legislation addresses the root causes of current VA scandal and empowers veterans with greater flexibility to get the quality medical care that he or she deserves,” McCain said.
It would let veterans seek non-VA care if staff can’t schedule a medical appointment within the agency’s time goals. Veterans could use the card if they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center or outpatient clinic.
“There’s plenty of money to do this,” Coburn said. “Money isn’t the problem.”
The Republican proposal would give the VA secretary authority to demote or fire senior executives based on performance, and would remove scheduling and wait times as factors for determining employee awards or bonuses.
An inspector general’s report on May 28 said some VA hospitals kept phony waiting lists to hide delays in treating veterans.
Shinseki resigned on May 30 after delivering an internal report that showed almost two-thirds of VA medical facilities manipulated appointment times for veterans to hide long waits. President Barack Obama accepted Shinseki’s resignation after lawmakers of both parties called for his ouster.
Obama said the Veterans Health Administration, which spends $160 billion annually, needs a new information system and may need more doctors and nurses.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson took over on an interim basis. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors remains on temporary assignment to the VA to assist with the transition and complete his review, Obama said.
In the House of Representatives, Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, said he’s drafting legislation that would require care be offered outside the VA system to veterans who waited at least 30 days for a medical appointment.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, are backing the plan.
House Republicans are promoting nine veterans-related bills that have passed in recent months and await Senate action. Those include a proposal to make it easier to dismiss VA officials for misconduct and another that would freeze bonuses for senior VA officials through the 2018 fiscal year.
Campaign groups for both parties are focusing on the issue.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are targeting Republican candidates for voting against increased spending for the VA.
Two groups that support Republican candidates, Crossroads GPS and Concerned Veterans for America, are airing online and television ads aimed at Democratic senators seeking re-election.
VoteVets.org, a Portland, Oregon-based group that backs mostly Democratic candidates, said today it would run full-page newspaper ads aimed at Burr in North Carolina and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky saying the lawmakers are “standing in the way of better care for veterans.”
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