House GOP's VA reforms: More accountability, private hospitals

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., pitched several ideas to reform the troubled Veterans Affairs health care system Saturday, urging President Obama to do "whatever it takes" to address the systemic misconduct and treatment delays that have been allegedly linked to the deaths of dozens of veterans nationwide.

Miller's advice, delivered in the weekly GOP address, came just two days after a key bipartisan pair of senators announced a deal to reform the VA's health care system.

Miller called on the president to support a House-passed bill that would "make it easier to fire senior VA executives who refuse to do their jobs." He also urged the president to back reforms that would allow veterans to seek care at private or non-profit hospitals outside the VA system if they are "faced with the prospect of unacceptable waits for treatment."

Both of those provisions were in the deal announced Thursday by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would give the secretary of veterans affairs greater freedom to fire errant employees and allow veterans who live too far from VA facilities to seek treatment from a doctor of their choice. The Senate has not yet voted on the proposal, which remains in draft form.

Miller urged the president to ensure the VA complies with all congressional inquiries into the matter, saying the department's response to date has been a "case study in how to stonewall the public."

And beyond addressing the immediate health care crisis, Miller pressed Mr. Obama to outline a broader vision for reforming the VA, saying "America deserves to know whether the president is committed to doing whatever it takes to make things right."

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who stepped into the job after the scandal forced his predecessor, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to step down, visited several VA facilities this week to detail the department's response to the immediate problem with treatment delays. He said the department is committed to re-earning the trust of America's veterans "one at a time."

At a VA hospital in Phoenix - the same facility that ignited the scandal in April after multiple reports of misconduct and delays - Gibson said that 18 Phoenix-area veterans whose names were kept off an official VA waiting list have died. Gibson could not say whether the 18 new deaths were due to delayed care.

He also confirmed that the department had reached out to all of the roughly 1,700 veterans at the Phoenix facility who were not found on any waiting list whatsoever, leaving them at risk of being lost or forgotten in the scheduling process. "Many hundreds" of those veterans, he said, are "already scheduled for appointments and for care."

In the president's own weekly address Saturday, he called on Congress to support a bill moving through the Senate that would allow people to refinance their student loans.

"We'd pay for it by closing loopholes that allow some millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than the middle class," he said. "That's the choice that your representatives in Congress will make in the coming weeks - protect young people from crushing debt, or protect tax breaks for millionaires."

The president said too many people feel "trapped" by their student loan debt, and he stressed his commitment to make college more affordable.

  • Jake Miller

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