WASHINGTON - Sen. Tom Coburn and three of his colleagues introduced Republican legislation on Tuesday to ensure veterans get timely medical care while the Veterans Affairs Department works through its bureaucratic problems.
The bill would allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center or who can't get an appointment in a reasonable time to receive care from the doctor or provider of their choice; the VA would have to pick up the tab.
"This bill is very targeted," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "It's focused specifically on fixing a short-term problem, which is how do we get veterans the care they deserve and allow the VA leadership to make the systemic changes that they need to make."
Recent inspector general and media reports have found that, at some hospitals, veterans have had to wait months for an initial primary care appointment and that some appointments were lost in bureaucratic mistakes and manipulations.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last week as the public outcry grew over the system, but lawmakers from both parties have said it's hard to hold other executives accountable at the department. The House has passed a bill that would make it easier for executives to be fired. The Senate bill unveiled Tuesday would also address accountability and make changes to the scheduling systems providers use.
"What we have right now is a system that isn't working," Coburn, R-Muskogee, said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
He said, "Is there an issue morally more important than meeting the needs of our veterans in this country? The foundation of having other people serve depends on how well we take care of those who have."
Coburn, whose office has been investigating the VA for years, said the department has more money than it needs and enough doctors to get the work done if they'll see more patients. Coburn said the average practitioner in the VA sees half the patients as the average practitioner outside the VA.
"We're not trying to undermine the VA," he said. "We're trying to improve the VA."
The Republican bill would expire in two years.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation that goes well beyond the Republican bill, dealing with veterans' benefits like college tuition. The bill would authorize the VA to lease 27 new health facilities in 18 states and authorize funding for more health care personnel.