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McCain slams upcoming veterans affairs bill

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"All I can say is, I'm deeply concerned about the legislation that is now being formed." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Sen. John McCain said Friday that upcoming omnibus legislation meant to help veterans is "very, very bad" because it does not address longstanding problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"All I can say is, I'm deeply concerned about the legislation that is now being formed," McCain said in an interview with a local radio station in Phoenix.

The Arizona senator criticized provisions in the bill aimed at increasing accountability within the scandal-plagued agency, arguing that part of the legislation lacks teeth.

House Veterans Affairs Committee staff have begun raising concerns about the legislation before it has even been introduced in the Senate.

A draft version of the Senate's Veterans First Act, a reform package, was leaked to the federal employees' union last month. In response, the American Federation of Government Employees issued a letter stating its objections to the accountability portion of the draft.

The present text of the bill seemingly appeased the unions' concerns. For example, after the AFGE criticized a provision in the draft bill that allowed managers to amend employee performance reviews after the fact, the final version barred retroactive changes.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said the union was not involved in drafting the bill.

While Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate VA Committee, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the committee's ranking Democrat, announced the measure last week, no one has yet introduced the bill to the Senate. A committee spokeswoman said the legislation would likely be introduced after the Senate returns from recess.

The Veterans First Act would expand a home caregivers program that has been faulted for mismanagement, namely because the program was already too large and unwieldy to begin with.

The program, which provides funding for veterans injured in the post-9/11 era to receive health care in their homes, cost $305 million last year. The Government Accountability Office noted the VA had drastically underestimated the demand for the program at its inception.

But the new bill would allow injured veterans from all generations to receive home health care, not just those who were hurt after 2001.

A spokeswoman for the Senate VA Committee said the legislation will compel the VA to adopt a number of Government Accountability Office's recommendations, including the implementation of an IT system that can adequately support the program.

The Veterans First Act also attempts to remove bureaucratic barriers that prevent VA managers from firing employees who misbehave. Such barriers allowed a VA worker in Puerto Rico who participated in an armed robbery to be reassigned within the agency rather than terminated for her crime, according to an April report by Government Executive.

In March, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Isakson questioning the slow pace of negotiations surrounding the bill. The pair of Republican lawmakers suggested Isakson may be "taking an approach that favors reaching a deal with the administration or others at any cost."

A spokesman for AFGE did not immediately return a request for comment as to whether the union supports the legislation in its present form.