Senators pressed Veterans' Affairs Committee colleagues Wednesday to get behind bills that would reform VA and increase benefits for some vets, improving fertility services, expanding support for caregivers and strengthening controls on prescription painkillers.
Some of the proposals were endorsed by VA even as the department said it would need more money to implement them.
But others, such as a bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., that would give the VA secretary broader powers to fire employees, ran into opposition from VA officials, who said such a measure would lower morale and hurt VA's ability to recruit quality employees.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee members heard pitches on six bills Wednesday, including two from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that have been introduced in previous years but never made into law.
Murray's legislation, the Women Veterans and Families Health Services bill and Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement bill, would require VA to cover infertility treatments for veterans with service-related fertility problems, create a child care program to cover baby-sitting during medical appointments and expand benefits to family and friends who provide support and care for ill and injured troops similar to programs available to post-9/11 veterans.
Among the concerns that have sunk Murray's bills in the past are their cost. The price tag for the women's services and fertility bill is estimated at $117 million while the caregiver bill may range from $1.8 billion to $3.8 billion.
But Murray said the nation has an obligation to help veterans injured in wars start families or stay in their homes, assisted by loved ones.
"Cost should not be an excuse to deny care to veterans," she said.
VA strenuously objected to Johnson's bill, drafted as a response to a scandal at a Wisconsin VA medical facility where at least two providers were implicated in providing large amounts of addictive prescription drugs to patients.
Dr. Rajiv Jain, VA's assistant undersecretary for health for patient care, said the bill would grant firing powers that other federal agencies don't have, robbing VA employees of their due process rights.
But Johnson argued that ongoing problems in VA leadership reflect the need for his bill.
"To date, no one has been fired at the Tomah VA," Johnson said. "They are still receiving paychecks provided by the American taxpayer."
VA also said it could not support a bill proposed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the Toxic Exposure Research Act, which would require VA to establish a center to study the effects of service-related environmental exposures on descendants of veterans.
VA officials said they collaborate on environmental exposure research with other federal agencies that are better suited to run multigenerational research. Jain said VA monitors veterans' health and "appropriately" restricts its research to veteran-centric studies through programs like the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center.
The draft bills considered Wednesday by the committee have bipartisan support, with the exception of Murray's fertility services legislation.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he supports much of what is contained in the proposed bills, adding that he looks forward to honing their language and getting them through committee.
He also told VA it would be wise for the department to work with Johnson to craft a bill the department acceptable to both parties to get rid of employees who perform poorly or are guilty of misconduct.
"We've had too many instances of situations that shouldn't be tolerated," Isakson said.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.