Republican lawmakers and veteran advocates on Thursday urged the Senate to take action on a bill giving the secretary of Veterans Affairs more authority to discipline and fire senior executives.
A House version of the legislation passed the Republican-dominated chamber 390 to 33, but a Senate version introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was stalled when Senate Democrats delayed a vote on it.
"Where is the urgency?" House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., asked Thursday. "The House will continue ... to act swiftly on behalf of the men and women who have served this nation with distinction and honor. We owe them that."
The House measure drafted by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, went to the floor with the full backing of committee Democrats, though the afternoon press conference included only Republican lawmakers.
Both bills are intended to expand the VA secretary's power to fire, transfer or demote employees determined to be failing in their job, including those in the Senior Executive Service. VA executives have drawn the attention of Congress over instances wherein some drew thousands of dollars in bonuses even though the facilities or departments they managed performed poorly.
This has been one of the key issues in the controversy over long appointment wait times at VA hospitals and clinics. Congress received testimony two years ago that executives were trading best practices for manipulating appointment schedule performance standards. The issue has since exploded following allegations that up to 40 veterans on a secret waiting list died before getting a doctor's appointment at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Some lawmakers say the manipulation of appointment schedules, especially if some veterans suffered and even died, warrants a criminal investigation. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said he would support that call if the VA's inspector general recommends it upon completing its investigation.
On Wednesday, an interim report by the IG confirmed the Phoenix hospital kept an unofficial list of 1,700 veterans waiting for care. That finding has resulted in a growing number of lawmakers demanding that Shinseki step down.
Shinseki said he will not go unless ordered by the president, who so far is standing by him. In a USA Today op-ed on Thursday, the retired Army four-star sought to assure the public he is acting decisively to make things right.
"I immediately directed the Veterans Health Administration to contact each of the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix waiting for primary care appointments in order to bring them the care they need and deserve," Shinseki wrote.
He also reiterated that he put top Phoenix hospital officials on administrative leave and ordered a nationwide audit of all VA facilities to determine how they are handling appointments.
One veterans' service organization, The American Legion, has pressed Shinseki to resign.
During the Thursday press conference, Stewart Hickey, national commander of AMVETS, argued that Shinseki's departure would not fix the problem. Hickey said Shinseki instead needs to dump many of the current hospital directors and the directors of the VA regional service networks across the country.
"Cutting off the head of the problem is not the answer," Hickey said. "We can chop off one head after another only to find another ... grow back in its place." Replacing the dozens of hospital and network directors who were on the job in 2010 will change the culture that enabled the problem to grow, he said.
Hickey said it is important to push the Senate to vote on the accountability legislation to empower the VA secretary to fire these senior executives.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine veteran, said he decided very quickly after leaving the Corps that he would get the medical care he required from the private sector, not the VA.
"It's quite simple. The trust between the VA and our veterans, the trust between the VA and me, the trust between the VA and the men I served with and for, it's broken," Hunter said. "It's broken and it needs to be fixed, and we have the first step to fix it with the bill Jeff Miller brought forward. And we're going to work as hard as we can to do that."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.