VA critics renew calls for better accountability reform

Presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., renewed his attacks on Veterans Affairs Department accountability efforts on the Senate floor Tuesday, part of an ongoing wave of criticism by lawmakers over continued public scandals for the department.

During an off-campaign stop in Washington, D.C., Rubio unsuccessfully pushed to advance his pending comprehensive VA reform measure, arguing that new accountability measures are long overdue.

"This is about taking care of our veterans, but it's also about taking care of people at the VA who are doing their job," he said. "It isn't fair that people who aren't doing their jobs continue in their positions, and in many instances are increasing the workload on others."

Also on Tuesday, the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America released new polling numbers arguing for expanded health care flexibility and employee dismissal rules. They blasted Democratic opposition to Rubio's legislation as telling veterans that "they are not a priority for the United States Senate."

Rubio's legislation would give VA officials authority to reduce the pensions of department executives convicted of a crime; limit the time employees can spend on paid administrative leave; and change how VA performance bonuses are awarded.

VA officials and Democrats have objected strongly to the legislation, saying it would violate federal workers' rights. They also argue that not only would it do little to help cure the department's problems, it also would scare away top talent.

"We ought to avoid creating unnecessary litigation and challenges to the law that can't be enforced effectively," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., senior Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "This one unfortunately cannot."

CVA officials, who have harshly criticized the current administration and VA leadership, conducted their poll to revive companion reform efforts. The results mirror findings from last year, when they rolled out similar accountability and health care expansion proposals.

The 1,000-person survey was conducted by the conservative Tarrance Group. More than 90 percent of respondents called for reforming veterans health care, improving accountability among VA employees and expanding medical care options for veterans outside the department.

CVA Legislative Director Dan Caldwell said the results were consistent among surveyed veterans using VA services and those who are not.

Veterans "overwhelmingly support (having) the choice to access private care with their VA benefits and increasing the level of accountability within the still-troubled department," Caldwell said.

House lawmakers advanced legislation similar to Rubio's bill earlier this year, with additional protections for whistleblowers included in their measure. That happened over the objection over House Democrats.

After Tuesday's maneuvering, the Senate bill remains stalled for now, with no clear path toward a full chamber vote.

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