A new omnibus veterans package cleared the House Tuesday afternoon, but it doesn’t address three controversial issues that both veterans affairs committees and the VA Secretary himself have spent the past year debating. That leaves a fix for the outdated veterans appeals process, an alternative or solution to the Veterans Choice Program and new accountability procedures to the 115th Congress and next administration.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee took on the recommendations from the VA Commission on Care’s recent report on veterans health care.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said the Veterans First Act, which the department itself is actively supporting, has hit a few roadblocks. He hasn’t yet been able to bring the omnibus to a vote in the full Senate but said he is optimistic Congress will pass new veterans legislation this year.
The Justice Department says a specific provision in the Veterans Choice Act, which ultimately renders that the disciplinary decision from administration MSPB judge is final for certain senior executives, violates a clause in the Constitution. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says Justice will continue to uphold vast majority of the Choice Act.
The Senate is still debating whether it should overhaul current programs at the Veterans Affairs Department that give veterans access to private health care or revise certain pieces of it. At the same time, the VA said it’s close on finalizing a new appeals process, but the committee is concerned the VA’s plan does little to address the current backlog of 450,000 unresolved claims.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald said his department is different enough from other federal agencies that a separate personnel system is appropriate for VA senior executives. McDonald also said the department is working on new performance standards to measure veterans’ satisfaction with VA medical facilities and the time it takes to receive an appointment.
At nearly 400 pages, the Veterans First Act, which the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee introduced last week, covers everything from veterans homelessness to more flexible work hours for VA doctors and nurses. But VA’s senior executives are still the main target of the legislation.
The Veterans First Act is a bipartisan omnibus bill that addresses problems within the Veterans Affairs Department. Everything from accountability to whistleblower protections is included in the package, along with major changes to the health care program for veterans, educational benefits and help for survivors.