The House Veterans Affairs Committee approved bills Wednesday to extend and expand the Department of Veterans Affairs' Choice Program and provide for more accountability of VA managers.
"Whether it's creating a culture of accountability at VA, expanding access to quality care or protecting the rights entrusted to our nation's heroes, these bills will improve the lives of America's veterans and build a better VA," said Rep. Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican and the committee's chairman.
The proposed legislation now goes to the full House for passage. Similar bills are working their way through the Senate.
"I am proud to support these important bills and look forward to moving them through the legislative process," Roe said.
Sen. John McCain, part of a bipartisan Senate group backing expansion of the Choice Program, said in a statement, "We simply cannot afford to send our veterans back to the pre-scandal days of unending wait-times for appointments, and I will be working closely with our leaders in the House and Senate to ensure our legislation makes it over the goal line."
Another bill passed by the House Committee, the VA Accountability First Act, would give VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin "increased flexibility to remove, demote, or suspend any VA employee, including Senior Executive Service employees, for performance or misconduct."
In testimony to a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday night, Shulkin said he welcomed efforts to give him more authority to remove poorly performing or corrupt employees, and he pressed Congress to extend the Choice Program, which will sunset in August.
By then, Shulkin said, the VA expects to have a new "Choice 2.0" program ready to streamline procedures allowing vets to choose private care.
Shulkin also said that the VA is looking at ways to begin offering treatment for post-traumatic stress to vets with so-called "bad paper" discharges while awaiting authorization from Congress.
"We have some authorities to do that," Shulkin said. "So many veterans are just disconnected from our system. We're going to do whatever we can. We're going to work with you. This is unacceptable, and we shouldn't have to wait for Congress to force the issue."
Veterans advocacy groups have argued for years that vets are cut off from treatment at the VA for the mental health problems that contributed to their less-than-honorable discharges.
In his Senate confirmation hearing, Shulkin said the VA must overhaul the Choice Program to allow vets more and better access to community care, but he also pledged that full privatization of the VA would not happen "under my watch."
He acknowledged that "we faced challenges" in implementing the Choice Program in 2014 but urged its extension while the VA seeks to correct deficiencies.
There is no time to waste," Shulkin said. "Many veterans are using the Choice Program today, and it is important to continue to care for and support those veterans."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.