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VA groups say speed, not spending, key for overhaul

Urge Democrats to keep bill slim

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Senate Democrats are rushing to craft a bill to revamp the Veterans Affairs Department in the wake of the burgeoning treatment scandal, but they are running into hurdles from some veterans groups who warn Democrats not to let a long wish list of spending get in the way of quick action.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the key committee in the Senate, introduced a 350-page bill Monday that combines quick changes to let the VA secretary fire people more easily with a broader overhaul of the department's health care services, providing everything from fertility care to acupuncture.

But the House already has passed a slim bill that would give the VA secretary even broader firing authority, and some key veterans groups say speedily passing that bill is more important right now.

"We want the VA Accountability Act as it stands to pass," Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told reporters Monday. "It's got bipartisan support, it flew through the House, the Senate should act quickly to do the same, get it in front of the president's desk and get it done."

Republicans tried to force the House bill through the Senate two weeks ago, just before lawmakers adjourned for a weeklong Memorial Day vacation, saying that it would pass by an overwhelming majority if put up for a vote. But Mr. Sanders blocked them, saying that though he agreed with portions of the bill, the House version politicized the struggle of veterans. He said he would write his own legislation that included only the most important parts of the House bill.

The push for quick action was spurred by reports that officials across the VA are cooking the books to hide lengthy wait times and are not providing quality care to veterans. An inspector general's report released last week confirmed some of those reports.

The House passed its version on a 390-33 vote last month, speeding the measure through even before the inspector general's assessment was completed.

The firing provisions have widespread support. As it stands now, there's a lot of red tape in the way and it can take more than a year to get rid of a high-level employee.

But Joe Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said his organization doesn't support the House bill, which strips out all checks and balances and leaves a wrongly-accused employee no way to appeal his or her termination.

"It would put the VA in a very bad situation attracting and retaining qualified individuals," he said. "It doesn't do anything about accountability, it just allows the secretary to fire whoever he or she wants."

Where some groups are calling for speedy action, Mr. Violante said the Senate may be moving too hastily. He said he just received a copy of the massive bill on Sunday and has to prepare for a Thursday hearing before Mr. Sanders' committee.

"It would've been nice to have some additional time," he said. "In my mind it's an important bill, but I'd like to read through it, analyze what's in it, figure out what it means for VA before we move it so quickly. I'm sure it has a lot of great provisions in there, but I'd like some time."

GOP senators will announce their own plan to fix the VA on Tuesday afternoon. Sens. John McCain, Arizona; Tom Coburn, Oklahoma; Richard Bur, North Carolina and Jeff Flake, Arizona, will introduce the Veterans Choice Act, which will give veterans more options when selecting a health care provider as well as increase transparency at the VA.

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