Senate lawmakers will introduce legislation this week to address the short-term health-care needs of veterans caught in the wake of the Veterans Affairs scandal. But a longer-term fix will require an overhaul that includes a bureaucratic reshuffling, more flexible patient options and potential criminal prosecution, lawmakers said Sunday.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), discussing the scandal that led to Eric Shinseki's resignation as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday, said the system was "gamed" in many parts of the country where the VA lacked the doctors or other staff to ensure the delivery of timely patient care.
This "must be dealt with through criminal prosecution and bureaucratic reshuffling," Mr. Sanders said on CBS's "Face the Nation." Lawmakers will introduce a bill on Monday or Tuesday to enable veterans on long waiting lists to get the care they need at a private facility, community health center or through the Department of Defense, he added.
Resolving longer-term problems will require ensuring veterans have primary-care physicians and other staff they need to get timely quality care, said Mr. Sanders, who carefully avoided blaming Mr. Shinseki and said-when asked whether he or Congress is responsible-that "everybody" can bear some responsibility for the problems.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said the scandal qualifies for a Justice Department investigation that "should've started some time ago."
"Clearly, there are some serious allegations that laws were broken," Mr. McCain said on CBS'sCBS -0.90% "Face the Nation."
"It's not just a scheduling problem in the VA. It is, as in the words of the inspector general, a 'systemic problem,'" said Mr. McCain, who said President Barack Obama "seems to be blaming it on a scheduling problem."
One key to resolving the issues, Mr. McCain said, is to give veterans choice about where to get care so they can do so closer to home or at places with the most availability. "Why should a veteran have to get into a van and ride three hours to get to Phoenix in order to have routine medical care taken care of?" he asked.
Mr. McCain likewise avoided placing blame on Mr. Shinseki, describing him as a "great man" and "fine patriot" he was reluctant to call on to resign.
Still, "it's a fact that they've lost the confidence of the veterans," said Mr. McCain, who suggested a good replacement would be Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), the medical doctor who is retiring at the end of the year with two years left in his term.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said his committee "instigated" many of the reports the VA inspector general issued since 2005 about the Veterans Affairs scheduling problems.
But "when we went to the VA to ask if the recommendations in fact were going to be followed up on, they said yes, and then when we asked them about their numbers, they lied to Congress in regards to their numbers," Mr. Miller said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." He added that it is "very difficult" for him to believe that the central veterans affairs office in Washington didn't have any idea about "the cooking of the books."
Mr. Miller said contentions that the VA lacks doctors are misleading because many of the doctors don't see enough patients. The agency has the money to provide the necessary care, he said, though not all veterans need to be treated at a VA hospital.
The vast majority of new enrollees are older people in need of aging-related care that is not traumatic and could be done through the private sector, he said. "We have a unique opportunity to help change the system to better serve veterans and not serve the bureaucrats who work inside the system."
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I, Vt.) appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Mr. Sanders made his remarks on NBC's "Meet the Press."
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