Sen. Sanders unveils proposal to fix Veterans Affairs performance

Lauren Schneiderman

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is offering legislation that would let the new head of the agency immediately remove senior executives for poor performance.

The bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would “prevent wholesale political firings,” he said, but provide more accountability to an agency criticized for bureaucratic corruption.

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Sanders’s legislation is also intended as a response to a Senate bill backed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that has been attracting support from Democrats.

The Rubio bill would grant the VA secretary new authority to fire officials found responsible for mismanagement, sexual harassment and bullying behavior. The measure has already received the backing of several Senate Democrats who face tough reelection bids.

Sanders, who plans to formally introduced his bill before his panel on Thursday, released a summary on Sunday 

The bill would allow veterans who do not receive “timely” appointments at VA health centers to seek care elsewhere, such as private doctors’ officers or community medical facilities. It also authorizes emergency funding to hire new doctors and nurses and would create scholarships or forgive college loans for health professional that go to work at the VA, the statement says.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned under pressure on Friday after an inspector general report found evidence that VA officials had doctored waiting lists to hide long waits for treatment by veterans.

“There must be a culture of honesty and accountability within the VA and people who have lied or manipulated data must be punished," Sanders said in a statement accompanying the bill summary. “But we also have to get to the root causes of the problems that have been exposed.”

The legislation, dubbed the Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act of 2014, is a rehash of a measure Sanders tried to pass in February but failed to muster enough support.

Rubio attempted to pass his legislation by unanimous consent on the Senate floor last month, but Sanders objected. Other Democrats have raised concerns that Rubio’s proposal would undo longstanding federal employee protections.

A House bill similar to Rubio’s passed the House last month 390-33.