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Senators unveil Veterans First Act

Members of Georgia's congressional delegation hosted a Robins Air Force Base breakfast at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, center, chats with Rep. Sanford Bishop, right, and Lt. Gen. Lee Levy, Air Force Sustainment Center Commander at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Members of Georgia's congressional delegation hosted a Robins Air Force Base breakfast at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, center, chats with Rep. Sanford Bishop, right, and Lt. Gen. Lee Levy, Air Force Sustainment Center Commander at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Okla. Courtesy of the House of Representatives

WASHINGTON -- Senators took fresh steps this week in the slow effort to reform the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department and hold it more accountable just as news broke of a new scandal -- cockroaches in food at a VA hospital in Chicago.

"Almost every morning there's a story on the news about some other failure at a VA hospital," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee.

He said the Chicago story was "just another failure of care for our veterans that we need to see stopped."

Nearly every member of Isakson's committee joined him on Thursday to unveil the Veterans First Act, the product of nearly a year of negotiations stemming from scandal over patient care at VA hospitals.

The bipartisan bill combines other pieces of legislation aimed at increasing accountability, including lowering barriers to hire and fire senior executives, expanding health care programs, protecting whistleblowers, reviewing the use of prescription drugs, increasing access to disability compensation and expanding access to education.

Isakson said leaders from both parties were aware of the legislation but declined to say when it might be considered, especially in light of the constrained congressional calendar in an election year.

He also could not recall the cost of the legislation, but said savings are included in the bill and veterans benefits would not be cut.

The committee's announcement came a day after a group of Republican senators announced plans to introduce legislation of their own -- the Care Veterans Deserve Act, which would seek to address the persistent problem of lengthy wait times for health care.

Two years ago, alarming shortcomings centered around delayed care and administrative oversight at some VA hospitals were uncovered. The scandal led to the resignation of Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki, and prompted hearings and congressional action to address the problems.

But a 2014 reform law has not been effectively implemented, prompting the new legislative efforts.

"It's a little bit like fixing a plane while you're flying it," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs panel.

"This system can be and must be improved and this measure will help advance its efficiency and its fairness," he said of the committee proposal.

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