Congress is mulling VA changes, but what do veterans think?

After more than a year of getting little done to help veterans, the Senate is now working furiously to address the urgent problems with the Veterans Affairs health system. The House has already passed some legislation to address the crisis of "secret wait lists" and insufficient access to care, while President Obama's new acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson heads to Phoenix on Thursday, where the scandal broke open.

While Washington lawmakers hustle to tackle the crisis -- more than 40 bills have been introduced in the wake of the scandal -- veterans' advocates are doing what they can to keep politics out of it.

"What you're seeing is chaos here in Washington as everyone scrambles to cover their butt politically," Paul Rieckhoff, the CEO and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), told CBS News.

Groups like the IAVA and other veteran service organizations are now "playing crossing guard," he said, and attempting to serve as an "effective intermediary between people who don't really work together."

The next 72 hours could prove whether those efforts will pay off, Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, told CBS News.

"After a year and a half of strict partisan bickering," he said, we may now "see a crack in the facade and see some bipartisan movement... There was bipartisan outrage when the Department of VA had all these scandals [come out] -- we need to make sure there's bipartisan solutions moving forward."

He added, "I don't think any of these lawmakers want to be going back to their districts over the summer without some kind of comprehensive legislation they were a part of."

Currently, the focus is on the Senate, where Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has introduced comprehensive legislation -- called the Restoring Veterans' Trust Act -- to address several of the VA's most pressing problems. A group of Republican senators have introduced a similar, competing bill. Instead of dwelling on the differences between the two bills, lawmakers say they're trying to find a compromise and bring legislation up for a vote before the full Senate as quickly as possible.

"I hope that we can do this bill absolutely as quickly as possible," Sanders told CBS News' Wyatt Andrews after meeting Wednesday with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the lawmakers behind the the Veterans Choice Act, which he introduced with Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

"When you sit down and talk to somebody, compromise is the defining word," Sanders said. "I hope we do what the American people want us to do -- address the real needs of veterans."

In spite of Sanders' efforts to work with his Republican counterparts, Rieckhoff said he's skeptical the Senate will accomplish much.

"I don't know if people in Washington yet understand the scope of this crisis," he said. "We're continuing to hear from whistle blowers ... and Washington's playing games again, and the president, we think, is still dithering."

Better leadership from Obama, Senate

The IAVA this week released an eight-step plan for reforming the VA, focused largely on actions that require leadership at the executive level.

"What we're trying to do is encourage the president to think big," Rieckhoff. "We're standing by to help, but he's given us no indication that there's a strategy for the crisis or the broader issues."

Appointing a new, permanent VA secretary -- someone familiar with the post-9/11 veteran community -- tops the IAVA's list. The organization is also calling for a full criminal investigation into the scandal.

"Our nationwide membership is asking what happens next, and we don't have any answer," Rieckhoff said. If President Obama is going to appoint Gibson to be the next Senate-confirmed VA secretary, Mr. Obama should say so, Rieckhoff said, "because right now everybody's in a holding pattern."

Both Rieckhoff and Celli agreed that the elected officials in the House Veterans' Affairs Committee have been the most productive this year when it comes to veterans' issues. Celli called the committee a "model of bipartisan work," adding that their "leadership should be an example to the Senate of how to do it right."

To help steer the Senate in the right direction, the American Legion worked closely with McCain and his GOP colleagues to draft the Veterans Choice Act. Celli expressed more optimism than Rieckhoff about the Senate's chances of passing meaningful legislation.

"We do believe they're going to pass something," he said.

More accountability

Both the GOP bill and Sanders' bill would make it easier for the VA secretary to hold senior executives accountable for mismanagement, and they would both grant veterans more access to health care outside the VA system -- two priorities for veteran service organizations.

"At least start with the access issue and the accountability issue -- those are paramount," Ray Kelley, legislative director of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), told CBS News. "Without those things, veterans are going to continue to suffer and the confidence in the system is not going to be there."

The House has already passed legislation making it easier for the VA secretary to fire senior executives, but it has yet to come up in the Senate. Sanders has suggested that if the legislation isn't worded properly, it could lead to wholesale political firings.

"What we don't want to do is create a situation where a new president comes in," Sanders told CBS News, "they fire 300 or 400 people and you make the VA in a political agency."

The American Legion supports the House bill, and Celli called Sanders' concern "unrealistic." Employees would have to be terminated with sufficient cause, he said.

Kelley said that while it's currently too hard for VA executives to be fired, there's legitimate concern that the pendulum could swing in the opposite direction. He said that Sanders' bill strikes the right balance between finding accountability and protecting employees. "It does meet the standards that we're looking for," he said.

Expand access, but preserve VA health system

When it comes to helping veterans receive timely care, veteran service organizations say that in certain cases, they should get care outside of the VA hospital system. In order to make this work, however, the VA system must stay responsible for patient care.

That means the VA must provide contracted physicians with the proper medical records, should be able to get records back from those physicians, and should vigilantly remind veterans of where they are receiving care, Celli said.

"Sometimes it can be confusing for veterans keeping up with where to go," he said. "There are a lot of moving parts in this, and we have to ensure the VA takes the lead."

Kelley said the VFW is concerned the GOP bill, the Veterans Choice Act, may not completely solve accessibility problems. The bill would do so by giving veterans the option of seeing private doctors in the Medicare or Tricare system. However, he pointed out that in some parts of the country, scheduling an appointment with a private primary care physician can also take months.

Most importantly, veteran service organizations say that the VA must maintain control and oversight of health care for veterans.

"The American Legion is absolutely and adamantly against privatization for care of veterans," Celli said, noting that the Veterans Choice Act would sunset after two years.

A sufficient budget, used effectively

The VA's funding is a matter of debate among lawmakers. Advocates say the VA may not even be able to accurately say what its budget needs are.

The IAVA's eight-step plan calls for Congress to fund the VA at levels recommended in the "Independent Budget" -- a budget written by veteran service organizations including the IAVA. For the 2014 fiscal year, this budget recommended $4 billion more for discretionary medical services funds than the president requested or Congress appropriated.

Celli said that Gibson and other VA leaders need to get to the bottom of the system's problems before making budget recommendations. "It's difficult when you don't know the full story -- don't know the full scope of [the VA hospital] workload because they're hiding it," he said.

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