White House working closely with Sen. Sanders on VA bill, says official

Lauren Schneiderman

The White House is working closely with Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on a new bill to tackle mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an administration official said Monday.

The legislation would allow veterans facing extended delays at veterans facilities to seek care with private healthcare providers, according to an outline released by the senator over the weekend.

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The bill would also provide emergency funding to hire additional doctors and nurses to work at the VA, and look to promote employment there through scholarships and loan-forgiveness programs.

Sanders's bill would give the Obama administration greater latitude to fire executives within the agency as well, although with tighter restrictions than a House bill defeated in the Senate last month.

The Vermont lawmaker is expected to introduce the legislation sometime this week.

"As we have said, we share the goals of the legislation that passed the House, and we have worked closely with Chairman Sanders to move legislation forward while addressing some technical issues with the House-passed version," a White House official said Monday. "We hope Congress can finish its work on a bill that addresses accountability and makes important reforms and will continue to work closely with them to get that done."

The legislation seems likely to garner bipartisan support. House Republicans called on the White House to endorse the effort formally last week, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Sunday argued veterans should be able to seek care in the private sector.

"The solution to this problem is flexibility to the veteran to choose their healthcare, just like other people under other healthcare plans have the — are able to do," McCain said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "Why doesn't that veteran have a card and go to the caregiver that he or she needs and wants?"

On Friday, President Obama announced the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki after an internal report corroborated an investigation by the department's inspector general revealing systematic mismanagement at healthcare facilities. 

At one clinic in Phoenix, some 1,700 veterans had been placed on a secret wait list to hide the extent of delays at the facility. Investigators say as many as 42 veterans clinics across the country may have similarly abused their scheduling practices.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that he could not "predict an exact timeline" for selecting Shinseki's successor. In the interim, deputy secretary Sloan Gibson has taken over the department in as acting director.

"We're going to look diligently for a new VA secretary, and we hope to confirm that successor and fill that post as soon as possible," Carney said.

Carney also said that work on an internal review by White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors was continuing despite Shinseki's resignation.