The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday to reform the troubled Veterans Affairs department. It’s expected to quickly clear the Senate and head to the desk of President Obama who has promised to sign it into law.
The bill—the Veterans Access Choice and Accountability Act as it’s called—would expand veterans’ access to health care by designating funds to build new facilities, hire more doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers and cover treatment costs at non Veterans Affairs facilities. Veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic or can’t get an appointment within 30 days would be eligible to seek care outside the VA system. The bill would also embolden the secretary of the agency to remove senior executives deemed guilty of misconduct more expeditiously. Finally, the bill would create a new 15-person oversight commission. All in all, this new legislation is expected to cost around $17 billion.
Reform of the scandal-ridden VA couldn’t come any sooner for Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado’s 5th congressional district, who was a member of the VA conference committee that dealt with the final bill. Colorado’s 5th is home to more than 100,000 veterans and a sizable military community, so when reports from whistleblowers began to emerge that VA hospitals were manipulating waiting times and possibly keeping secret waiting lists, Rep. Lamborn, who sits on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, found himself in somewhat of an awkward position.
His connection to the VA started to become a prickly campaign issue during primary season. Lamborn, a fourth term incumbent, faced his most serious primary challenge in years from retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn who, in their only public debate, accused Lamborn of missing dozens of VA committee hearings. Lamborn responded by saying that he was following up on the whistleblowers’ reports and he hadn’t found any wrongdoing in the VA hospitals in his district.
In late July, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that over the past two years, Lamborn has missed more than half of House Veterans Affairs Committee meetings, though his attendance spiked after the scandal broke in May. Lamborn’s campaign provided a detailed list of scheduling conflicts to explain his absences, showing 17 of the 19 absences were due to conflicting committee meetings and during the remaining two, Lamborn was flying to D.C.. Jarred Rego, spokesman for Lamborn’s campaign, said the congressman “serves on nine committees and subcommittee. It is simply impossible to be in two or three places at once,” adding that he always sends staffers to take notes at meetings he can’t physically attend.
But the issue won’t go quietly. Lamborn now faces a Democratic opponent in the general election, another retired Air Force major general, Irv Halter, who accuses Lamborn of not fighting for veterans in the district. “When there were hearings on patient wait times, delays in medical care, hearings on the effects of the shutdown, VA benefits… He didn’t even show up,” Halter said in a media briefing last week.
In an email to the Colorado Independent, Rego called these attacks on his attendance record “fundamentally ignorant or dishonest about the structure of Congress” and said he’s confident voters know of the work Lamborn has done on behalf of veterans. About the reform bill, Rego said Lamborn “worked hard to ensure that the bill had accountability measures so that culture of corruption can begin to change at the VA. The corrupt culture at the VA won’t be changed overnight and there is still a lot of work to do, but Congressman Lamborn will continue working to address the problems that remain, both with local veterans and from his seat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.”
At least one executive who oversees VA hospitals in Colorado is facing disciplinary action, whether it be suspension, demotion or possibly dismissal.
Campaign photo of Rep. Doug Lamborn at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs from the Lamborn for Congress website