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VA deal shows Congress can work
Lawmakers shouldn’t deserve praise for doing their job, but this is an exception.
Something unusual is happening this week in the otherwise gridlocked and dysfunctional Congress: Lawmakers are coming together to pass a law to address a significant national problem.
The problem is veterans’ health care. With the August recess approaching, political opportunity high and midterm elections looming, the system is responding in the way it is supposed to but too rarely does.
The appropriate committees held hearings. The Senate and House passed separate legislation. The key committee chairmen — left-wing Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and conservative Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. — set aside their partisan differences. They reached a compromise that sets up a swifter system for firing senior VA executives than Sanders and Democrats initially sought, and spends about $5 billion more than Miller said he could swallow just a few days ago.
The House passed the deal 420-5 on Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to follow suit as early as Thursday, sending the measure on to President Obama for his signature. Now, that wasn’t really so hard, was it?
The measure should help alleviate lengthy delays to see doctors, hold VA managers more accountable and ease a shortage of doctors and nurses.
Most important, it would provide a trial run for using private doctors to treat veterans. With many conservatives pushing privatization as the cure-all for what ails the VA, this experiment is useful. The new “choice” program would allow veterans to seek private care when they’ve waited more than 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. Wisely, it would end in three years, unless Congress re-approved it — meaning the program would not become permanent without proving its worth.
Congress was forced into action by a Department of Veterans Affairs scandal that erupted this spring in Phoenix. What initially appeared an isolated problem was soon revealed to be widespread across the sprawling VA health care system. Thousands of veterans across the country were languishing, some even dying, while waiting for appointments. VA workers, often at the behest of superiors, were covering up the delays, perhaps illegally.
While the legislation represents a good start on the short-term issues facing the VA, no one should underestimate the enormous job ahead of Congress, the president and newly confirmed VA Secretary Robert McDonald to fix the VA’s festering, systemic problems.
These include a culture that has little transparency or accountability, and a pattern of retaliation against employees who question how things are done.
Congress ordered the creation of an independent commission to make a top-to-bottom assessment of what is needed. Good.
Lawmakers shouldn’t really deserve praise for doing the job they were elected to do, but the VA measure is a notable exception to this Congress’ trademark lack of productivity.
Now if they could only do the same on immigration. Or entitlements. Or tax simplification. Or highways. Or climate change. Or the Postal Service. Or housing finance. Or …
Sen. Coburn: Don’t reward VA for failing
The bad news for veterans is that little will change if the House-Senate conference agreement becomes law.
Tom Coburn 8:33 p.m. EDT July 30, 2014
Too many men and women who bravely fought for our freedom are losing their lives, not at the hands of enemy combatants, but from neglect by the very government agency established to take care of them.
Failing to provide timely access to medical care, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been covering up the excessive wait times vets must endure to see a doctor. It has also withheld the outcomes of the medial care provided and wasted billions of dollars as a result of mismanagement.
After the needless deaths of hundreds of veterans from long waits and botched care, Congress reacted by writing a bill that would grant those who fought for our freedom the freedom to choose their own doctors.
The bad news for veterans is that little at the VA will change if the House-Senate conference agreement becomes law.
In typical Washington fashion, instead of making the agency more transparent and accountable, Congress is rewarding the department for its failures with a $16 billion bonus.
The problems plaguing the VA, which boasts the second largest budget in the federal government and ends every year with billions of unspent dollars, are not the result of a lack of funds.
The bill would add thousands of new employees, but would do nothing to achieve better quality of care. The VA has hired 40% more physicians, far outpacing growth in the number of patients using the system.
VA physicians who see far fewer patients than their private-sector counterparts, but receive similar compensation, are being paid for doing less work.
It is true, as a result of this bill, some veterans facing long delays or who live far from VA facilities would no longer have to wait or do battle with bureaucracy to see a doctor.
Rare bipartisan unity to quickly pass a bill before Congress recesses for the summer was made possible by borrowing billions of dollars and election-year politics.
Ultimately, the VA suffers from the same problem as Congress: too much money and not enough leadership.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is a physician and the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.