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John McCain: the VA reform plan pending in Congress is 'very bad'

May 6, 2016 (Photo Credit: Daniel Woolfolk/Military Times)

Sen. John McCain on Friday panned the massive veterans omnibus legislation pending in the Senate as a “very bad” plan, casting doubt on the future of the already controversial reform measure.

During a radio interview on Arizona’s KFYI-AM, the longtime Arizona senator said he is “deeply concerned” about the plan, particularly its provisions dealing with firing problem employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs and expanding options for veterans seeking health care outside the VA system.

“There’s not the accountability there,” he said. “I’m very concerned. Hopefully we’ll take up some legislation before we go out, but I’m very worried, to tell you the truth.”

Last month, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled the Veterans First Act as a massive reform measure with an expansion of VA caregiver programs, new accountability rules for VA employees and a host of smaller initiatives designed to make the department more customer-focused.

Isakson said he was confident the legislation would gain the support of both the Senate and the White House, and billed the moves as a chance to create “a new VA in America.”

But House lawmakers have already begun questioning the accountability provisions, which don’t go as far as those passed by that chamber earlier this year.

VA leaders had asked for the reclassification of department senior executives to allow for faster hiring and firing of those positions, plus more flexibility on pay and work hours.

The Senate plan includes that but also goes further, giving broader power to senior leaders who want to dismiss federal workers in the department. Union leaders and the White House have objected to similar plans in the past.

But House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staff said the Senate plan does not go far enough.

For example, under the Senate plan, disciplinary decisions which today can take more than 400 days to complete would be reduced to 110. The House plan trims that even further, to 52 days for appeals and rulings. In addition, the House plan does not require any advance notice for disciplinary action and would significant limit appeals.  

 

McCain has introduced his own legislation dealing with VA reform, but that plan does not include any new accountability provisions. It does have an extension of the VA Choice Card program, mandated by Congress in 2014 as a way to simplify veterans’ attempts to get medical care outside the department.

Isakson’s omnibus only includes minor updates to that program. He said in a press conference last month that McCain’s proposal was not at odds with the other Senate bill, and he looked forward to working with the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman on the issues.

VA officials have already expressed concern that their top priorities — appeals reform and consolidation of outside care programs — are not covered in the omnibus.

And veterans groups have expressed concern about the costs of the proposal, which Isakson said will be covered by offsets in the measure but will remain unclear until scoring information is released in coming days.

Supporters of the bill had hoped the legislation could be finalized by Memorial Day. Last month, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., declined to offer an specific opinion on the legislation but called it a “positive development” towards passing needed reform measures.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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