House OKs bill to improve veteran care

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WASHINGTON — A day after an audit confirmed extensive and systemic problems at Veterans Administration facilities nationwide, the U.S. House on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill to help ensure timely medical attention for veterans.

Prospects of a Senate vote are unclear. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and senators including Pat Toomey, R-Pa., have already introduced their own bills aimed at improving the VA.

The House-passed bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to send veterans to private providers when the VA cannot provide its own care within 14 days, or within 40 miles of a patient’s home. Meant to eliminate long wait lists for care, the provision would expire in two years.

The legislation also would ban bonuses for all VA employees through 2014 and would require the administration to provide quarterly reports to Congress.

Republicans were quick to blame the Democratic administration even as they lauded the bipartisan passage of their proposed fix.

“The Veterans Access to Care Act upholds a promise to our veterans that has been woefully broken under the Obama administration — the promise that our country will be there for our heroes when they return home from the battlefields,” said caucus leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, characterized the VA problems as a national emergency and said the House-passed legislation will help veterans who already have waited too long for treatment and benefits they have earned.

The legislation is in response to findings that VA employees in Phoenix and elsewhere had been falsifying records in order to conceal long wait times for thousands of veterans seeking care.

An internal VA audit of 731 facilities showed that 90 percent of veterans waited for three months or more for their first appointment, and some died while waiting for care.

“That is now how America takes care of its veterans, and we need action immediately to prevent any more from being harmed,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair. “It’s time to bring accountability to the VA and start providing immediate solutions.”

He and other members of the Western Pennsylvania delegation said they were pleased to support the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

“We have a solemn obligation to stand with our veterans,” said Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley.

“It is a principle of solidarity. They stood for us. We stand for them. Veterans should not be forced to wait excessive periods of time to receive the care they need, deserve and rightly expect.”

Across the Capitol, senators have been working on their own bills to help veterans receive more timely access to health care.

One plan that appears to be gaining traction would fund construction and operation of 26 additional VA medical facilities in 18 states. Sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the legislation also includes other provisions that mirror the House bill.

The McCain-Sanders bill also would provide resources for military sexual assault victims, and additional support to veterans whose college costs aren’t fully covered under the GI bill. Additionally, it would extend GI tuition benefits to spouses of soldiers killed in battle.

Mr. Toomey, meanwhile, has a bill that would make it easier for veterans to sue VA employees who willfully misrepresent, lie or misreport any aspect of patients’ health status.

His bill also would allow plaintiffs in cases against the VA to more easily obtain evidence. It also would hold employees — not the government — liable for monetary damages caused by willful misconduct.

Another provision would make it easier for the administration to terminate VA workers who falsify or destroy records and would make those fired employees ineligible for pensions.

Meanwhile, Sloan Gibson, acting secretary of veterans affairs, began meeting Tuesday with private-sector health care leaders to discuss best practices and policies for scheduling patients.

“We need to examine the best practices of health care systems across the country to find immediate solutions for timely delivery of quality health care,” said Mr. Gibson, who was appointed after predecessor Eric Shinseki resigned over the wait-list scandal.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello:, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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