By Alexander Bolton - 05/29/14 05:23 PM EDT
Senate Democratic leaders are planning a two-pronged legislative response to the scandal embroiling the Veterans Affairs Department, which has become an issue in several Senate races.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is looking at a bill to hold senior officials at the VA accountable for mismanagement and legislation that would address the “root cause” of the scandal by expanding veterans’ access to medical care, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Specifically, Democratic leaders are looking at the healthcare components of an omnibus bill sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
The Sanders legislation includes funding for an additional 27 VA medical centers and Democratic leaders plan to push that proposal.
Sanders is also in talks with Senate Democratic leaders and Republicans about moving other pieces of his package that passed out of his committee with unanimous support.
The streamlined bill he’s putting together expands on the idea of letting VA patients visit private doctors as well as Department of Defense facilities, community health centers and Indian Health Service centers. To provide a longer term solution, it would let the National Health Service Corps provide scholarships or loan forgiveness for doctors who work at VA hospitals and clinics.
“To restore veterans' trust in the reliability of VA health care, we must take action to address the root causes of these problems,” Reid said. “Millions of American service members are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and entering the VA system, and that system needs more resources to provide them the best care.
“When the Senate returns, the Veterans Affairs Committee will immediately work on the appropriate legislation to address these deeply rooted problems,” he added.
Reid decided not to schedule a vote before the Memorial Day recess on legislation that passed the House with 390 votes giving Shinseki more power to fire senior officials.
Reid described the House bill as “not unreasonable,” but some Democrats worry it could undermine civil service protections.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday that Congress needs to approve additional funding for the VA.
“Congress needs to demand the right leadership at the VA but Congress needs to provide the resources for the VA. We keep sending them new challenges, new opportunities and we’ve got to make sure they have the resources to meet them,” Durbin said in an interview with WGLT radio.
Durbin held off on calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. He plans to review Shinseki’s leadership next week and wants to hear from him personally.
Eleven Senate Democrats, many of them up for reelection this year, have called for Shinseki to step down in the wake of an interim inspector general’s report that found systematic mismanagement at VA facilities.
Joe Violante, the national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, estimates Congress has underfunded veterans' medical care by $7.8 billion and VA construction by $9 billion over the last 10 years.
"They're not doing enough and unfortunately many in Congress are putting the blame entirely on the secretary and I think part of the fault belongs to them for not appropriating the money," he said.