Senator: Large veterans reform bill promises ‘a new VA’

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Senate leaders unveiled a massive veterans reform package Thursday that includes sweeping new accountability rules for Department of Veterans Affairs employees, a dramatic expansion of the veterans caregiver program, and promises of changing the agency to a more veteran-friendly culture.

Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, the measure faces an uncertain future with the House and White House, which have already raised questions about how effective the new firing rules will be and the unclear cost of the omnibus.

But Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he is confident the proposal will be transformative legislation for veterans health care and benefits, and can become law later this year.

“In this bill we are addressing all of the things we have been hearing about from our veterans,” he said. “Accountability is addressed, delivered, and we’re going to have a new VA in America.”

The legislation comes less than two years after the last major veterans omnibus passed by lawmakers in the wake of the wait times scandal that forced multiple VA leaders to resign.

At that time, lawmakers passed language to more quickly fire senior executives for incompetence or malfeasance. But the change has resulted in few new firings, in part because of VA officials’ complaints about the cumbersome new rules that were meant to simplify the process.

The new omnibus — dubbed the Veterans First Act — would go along with VA leaders’ request to be able to more easily hire and fire department senior executives, changing the employment policies to rules closer to private-sector contracts.

But it also goes further, limiting the amount of time any VA employee can be placed on administrative leave, blocking bonuses for some workers, and allowing any VA employee to be fired for misconduct with more limited appeals and a quicker timeline.

House Democrats have objected to similar proposals, and the White House has warned it will not support proposals that too deeply erode federal workers’ rights.

The Senate omnibus also includes a new office charged with protecting whistleblowers, with more oversight and reporting to Congress on that recurring issue.

On health care, the bill includes a massive expansion of VA’s program for caregivers of seriously injured veterans, which provides financial support, health benefits and other services for family members offering care.

Under the plan, financial stipends would be extended to caregivers of veterans injured or wounded on active duty on or before May 7, 1975. Currently, that benefit is only available to veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001.

The benefit would begin as soon as VA can establish the technology infrastructure needed to support the additional caregivers. Two years after that, it would be extended to all caregivers of veterans, regardless of the era they served.

The Congressional Budget Office in 2014 estimated that expansion of the caregiver program to all eligible veterans would cost VA $9.5 billion over four years. Isakson could not say the exact cost of his proposal, but said the slower roll-out and other savings would cover the expense.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs staffers estimated the omnibus’ cost at around $4 billion, with enough offsets to cover the spending. Congressional Budget Office scoring of the document is still pending.

And unlike a separate, pending House proposal, the legislation does not include cuts to future GI Bill benefits to pay for the program expansions. Several veterans groups, led by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have railed against that idea as a betrayal of promises made to veterans.

Isakson said that none of the proposals in the omnibus pull money from one veterans program to pay for another. Committee Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called that a crucial provision to bring bipartisan support for the measure.

But it also has raised additional questions about the exact cost of the proposal and whether the funding mechanisms are realistic.

The bill also contains language that will help VA streamline the Veterans Choice program and the department’s other initiatives that allow veterans to get care outside a VA facility.

It does not include a consolidation of the various VA outside care programs that department leaders have asked for, nor does it include reforms for the disability claims appeals process that VA Secretary Bob McDonald has made his top congressional priority.

Isakson has said he hopes to get to that issue later this year.

Both committee leaders said they hope for a quick Senate vote on the issue, and indicated leadership support to take up the issue in coming weeks.

Whether House leaders will similarly embrace the measure remains to be seen.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., issued a statement after the omnibus’ release calling it “a positive development,” adding “I look forward to immediately engaging in conference committee negotiations in order to move a VA reform package to the president’s desk.”

Follow @LeoShane

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

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