Politics
Committee chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders and ranking member Sen. Richard Burr address Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (not pictured) as he testifies before a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on VA health care, on Capitol Hill in Washington May 15, 2014. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst) Committee chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders and ranking member Sen. Richard Burr address Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (not pictured) as he testifies before a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on VA health care, on Capitol Hill in Washington May 15, 2014. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)  

Senate Democrats Failed To Act On Republican VA Concerns Prior To VA Scandal

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Patrick Howley
Political Reporter

The Democratic-led Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs failed to hold sufficient oversight hearings into problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs despite Republican demands dating back more than a year to do so.

The VA, moreover, failed to provide the committee with information necessary to address problems, congressional insiders say.

The committee, chaired by independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democratic Senate majority, held only seven oversight hearings to address problems, three legislative hearings to discuss new bills, and two markups to rewrite legislation in the 113th Congress that began in January 2013.

The committee’s lack of initiative angered Republicans on the committee, who wanted to address health-care issues like the kind that led to secret waiting lists and preventable veteran deaths at the Phoenix, Arizona VA Medical Center.

Scheduling problems previously highlighted by committee members were not addressed during Sanders’ chairmanship prior to the Phoenix scandal that recently led to international headlines.

At the beginning of the 113th Congress, GOP minority staff provided Sanders’ staff with a list of hearing topics that it wanted oversight hearings on. Sanders’ staff said they would pass it on to Sanders. The oversight hearings based on the GOP recommendations never occurred.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, for instance, during the fiscal year budget hearing convened in March 2014, specifically requested an oversight hearing on retention and recruitment of VA doctors, which is a problem in Kansas, but the hearing was never convened. Other Republicans specifically requested hearings from Sanders that never happened, the insiders say.

“How many Inspector General, Special Counsel, GAO, and Medical Inspector reports does it take to spur outrage and prompt action?” Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a member of the committee’s GOP minority, told The Daily Caller. “The VA is in desperate need of oversight and it is our job — as the President mentioned in his statement last week — to provide it for VA. We will take steps if our request is not met.”

Each of the relatively few hearings the committee held this Congress were overfilled with issues, with copious amounts of backlogged issues on the agenda.

The legislative hearings had 94 total health-care bills on the agenda for the Committee to address in a short period of time. The first legislative hearing occurred in May 2013 and there were 20 health-care bills on the agenda. The June legislative hearing had 38 benefits related bills to slog through. The July markup had eight bills on the agenda. The October legislative hearing had 36 health and benefits related bills to get through. The November markup had six bills. Those six bills at the November markup were voted to be reported out of committee, but the majority never did so.

During the November markup, there were only two bills that received no Republican support, but action from the Democratic majority was still lacking.

The VA did not provide sufficient views or cost estimates, not allowing members to consider these bills with a complete picture of how the legislation would impact the Department or whether there would be any unintended consequences, according to insiders.

In a February 2014 floor debate, Sanders offered S. 1982 which contained numerous provisions from two previous markups, including provisions to expand caregiver eligibility and to expand VA eligibility to Priority 8 veterans that have incomes above the VA income threshold who agreed to shoulder the cost of a copay. But during the debate, the committee did not have cost estimates from VA or the Majority for Sanders’ provisions and did not understand the potential consequences of the provisions. The caregiver program, signed into law in 2010, has not yet been fully implemented and has been inconsistently implemented in regions across the country.

During the legislative and markup hearing, VA provided some views and estimates, according to insiders, but not a full picture. After the hearing, VA provided additional views.

Despite the inaction of the current committee majority led by Sanders, the previous Democratic Committee chairman Sen. Patty Murray took VA issues, including scheduling problems, more seriously.

Murray, who expressed her frustration with the current VA scandal, previously had numerous mental health hearings when she was chairman between 2011 and 2013 and the issue of wait times came up in testimony. Murray and Burr requested an IG investigation into wait times at VA mental health services in 2011, and sent a follow up letter in 2012 to VA regarding the scheduling system in 2012.

Sanders’ office declined to comment.

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