By MATTHEW DALY
WASHINGTON (AP) - A bill proposed by four Senate Republicans would give veterans more flexibility to see a private doctor if they are forced to wait too long for an appointment at a Veterans Affairs hospital or clinic.
Arizona Sen. John McCain and three other GOP senators introduced the bill Tuesday, the latest response in Congress to a furor over patient delays and reports of falsified records at VA health facilities nationwide.
A federal investigation into the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an electronic waiting list. The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems throughout the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
A document released Tuesday by Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, both Kansas Republicans, showed that at least 108 veterans waited more than 90 days for appointments with a primary care doctor at nine hospitals and 51 outpatient clinics in Kansas, Missouri and parts of four other states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas.
A bill being crafted by the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee would require the VA to offer outside care to veterans who cannot be seen within 30 days. And the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee's chairman, an independent, has proposed a bill to pay for veterans' appointments at community health centers and military hospitals or with private doctors if they cannot get a timely appointment at a VA facility.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House panel, asked acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson on Tuesday to respond within a week to a month-old subpoena demanding documents related to an investigation of alleged falsified records and other problems that have surfaced in the past six weeks across the 1,700-facility VA health care system.
Miller said is frustrated by the "stonewalling" to his request by the department under former Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned under fire last Friday.
"Right now, Secretary Gibson has a chance to begin to repair the reputation of a department that has gained notoriety for its secrecy and duplicity with the public and indifference to the constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities of Congress," Miller said.
A career banker, the 61-year-old Gibson had served as deputy VA secretary since February. He came to the department after serving as president and chief executive of the USO, the nonprofit organization that provides programs, services and entertainment to U.S. troops and their families.
McCain and the other GOP senators said their bill would make it easier for veterans to get care. It would direct all 150 VA hospitals to publish on their websites the current wait time for an appointment and require the VA to establish a public database of patient safety, quality of care and outcomes at each hospital.
Veterans who can't get a VA appointment within 30 days or who live at least 40 miles from a VA clinic or hospital could go to any doctor who participates in Medicare or the military's TRICARE program. The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina. Burr is the senior Republican on the veterans panel.
"I've always believed that veterans could choose and should choose" their doctors, McCain said. He added that he first proposed private care for veterans during his 2008 presidential bid. "Give these veterans a choice card so they can present it to the health care provider," he said Tuesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, proposed legislation this week that would allow veterans who can't get timely appointments with VA doctors to go to community health centers, military hospitals or private doctors. The bill also would authorize the VA to lease 27 new health facilities in 18 states and give the VA secretary authority to remove senior executives within 30 days of being fired for poor job performance, eliminating lengthy appeals.
The House passed a similar bill last month, but Sanders said he worried that version would allow "wholesale political firings" and even dismissal of whistleblowers.
Sanders and McCain are scheduled to meet privately Wednesday to try to reach agreement on legislative language related to veterans health.
Associated Press writer John Milburn in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.