Leading senators divided on legislative fix for veterans’ issues

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 2, 2014 

Sen. Richard Burr and other Republican senators plan to introduce a bill on Tuesday that they say will improve accountability in the Veterans Administration and give veterans more choice in health care.

Burr, the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the others supporting the bill would not give details on Monday. But Burr said the legislation would include a provision similar to what was passed in the House of Representatives on May 21 that would give the secretary of Veterans Affairs the power to fire senior federal officials whose jobs have security under civil service rules.

Burr and most Republican senators voted against a broad bill on veterans health care and services in the Senate in February, blocking it from consideration. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who chairs the committee, said he plans to introduce a new version on Thursday with some changes aimed at getting to a compromise.

Sanders said on Monday that there is not enough funding for the doctors and nurses and staff needed in the VA system.

Burr disagreed.

“In the last five years the VA has carried over in the health account over $6 billion. They didn’t need any more money. Money’s not the problem. It’s having a functional VA. But if down the road if they need more money the Congress will respond to it,” Burr said, speaking with reporters at the Capitol.

Firing people in the VA is “not going to solve the problem of waiting lists in Phoenix and many other parts of the country,” Sanders said. “What we have to address is in many parts of the country it appears there are not enough physicians, there are not enough nurses, there’s not enough staff to deal with the fact that in the last four or so years we have some 2 million new veterans that have come into the system.”

More accountability also is needed, he said in his own small group conversation with reporters. But he said he did not want to see the VA staffing become politicized, where a new president and secretary could fire hundreds of key people.

Sanders also said he takes “strong umbrage” at anyone who said his bill was full of unnecessary spending for special interests and that he found it “distasteful that the Republicans now say this may be too expensive.”

“Well you know, if it’s too expensive to take care of veterans when they come home from war don’t send them to war in the first place. This is a cost of war,” he said.

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