Despite a growing scandal about mismanagement at Veterans Affairs hospitals, efforts to change the system aren't likely to become law.
In response to reports of problems at VA hospitals around the country, House Republican lawmakers are building a legislative agenda aimed at both reforming and privatizing medical treatment for veterans.
But Democrats and even some veterans groups are hesitant to change huge department, which was created in 1930 to deal with the medical needs of the nation’s millions of veterans and which now operates 152 medical center and 820 outpatient clinics.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, has long opposed privatizing medical care for veterans and is even hesitant to back smaller efforts by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to allow veterans unable to gain access to a VA doctor to seek help outside the system.
“It all comes with a cost,” explained VFW spokesman Joe Davis. “People need to fully understand that just because the VA has the authority to contract out care, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a waiting list in private practice. There is a shortage of medical and health care professionals in this country to start with.”
Democrats, however, may be the biggest roadblock standing in the way of the GOP’s reform plans for Veteran Affairs.
Earlier this month, the GOP-led House passed legislation that would give Shinseki greater authority to fire senior executives for poor performance. But the Senate, run by Democrats, blocked quick approval of the House measure.
Many Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., believe the bill would leave senior executives vulnerable to getting politically motivated dismissals when administrations change.
“There are some good provisions in it,” Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with the Democrats, told the Washington Examiner. “But I think there are some problems in it.”
Sanders wants to pass a comprehensive reform measure that will include additional funding for the department, but it’s likely to go nowhere in the House, where lawmakers note that VA funding has already nearly doubled in the last decade.
The VA inspector general released an interim report that found “systemic” and “inappropriate” scheduling practices at the Phoenix VA hospital that left more than 3,000 veterans waiting for care. According to the report, veterans there waited an average of 115 days to see a doctor.
The IG report brought new calls from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers for Shinseki to step down, although House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, still supports keeping him on the job.
The House measures included legislation to overhaul the performance appraisal system for senior executives, many of whom received bonuses despite overseeing long waiting lists. Another House bill would force Shinseki to quickly provide the names of department managers who are not following recommendations from the VA inspector general. That bill would also block performance bonuses for incompetent VA employees.
House and Senate Republican lawmakers are also drafting legislation that would allow veterans to obtain private medical care, paid for by the government, if they are unable to get a VA appointment within 30 days.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he will introduce a bill in June that would let veterans decide whether to seek medical attention outside of the VA system. The plan could involve providing veterans with a credit card or government identification card to obtain private care.
Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has promised to introduce legislation that would allow veterans to obtain private care if they are forced to wait longer than 30 days for medical attention within the VA system.
Senate Democrats are likely to block any bill that would privatize the department in favor of Sanders' comprehensive reform plan, which has yet to be debated or considered in committee.
Democrats may also decide to hold off on legislating major changes now that Shinseki has signaled a greater willingness to allow at least some veterans on wait lists to obtain care at private facilities.
"Each of our facilities is either enhancing their clinic capacity to help Veterans get care sooner, or where we cannot increase capacity, increasing the care we acquire in the community through non-VA care," Shinseki said in a statement.