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Tamar Hallerman

Johnny Isakson unveils long-awaited VA reform bill

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Jan. 12, 2016 -  Atlanta -  U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson delivers his address.   Isakson, Governor Nathan Deal, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, and House Speaker David Ralston were featured speakers at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's annual Eggs & Issues Breakfast.  The event was expected to attract more than 2,000 Georgians, including many of the state's  elected officials and business leaders.  BOB ANDRES  / BANDRES@AJC.COM

 U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson in January. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson unveiled legislation today that would overhaul accountability efforts at the Department of Veterans Affairs in a bid to change a culture that has produced a cascading list of scandals in recent years.

The bipartisan compromise is among the most ambitious of Isakson’s career on Capitol Hill, but the effort’s fate is far from certain in this unpredictable and often bitter election year.

“Accountability is addressed, delivered and we’re going to have a new VA in the United States of America,” Isakson said at a press conference this morning, flanked by members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

“We’re going to join together in putting to bed once and for all the failures in the culture of the VA and see to it every veteran is put first,” he said.

Here are some of the things the 391-page bill seeks to do:

  • Make it easier for the VA to fire bad employees
  • Ban bonuses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing
  • Create a new whistleblower protection office
  • Launch a pilot program to help the VA wade through its 445,000-thick backlog of veteran disability claims
  • Allow the VA to enter into provider agreements with community doctors and expand an effort for veterans with serious injuries to receive care at their own homes
  • Enhance mental health and anti-homelessness programs

The bill would also remove the Merit Systems Protection Board, which reversed the demotions of three senior VA executives, and expand the post-9/11 GI bill eligibility for mobilized reservists, among other changes.

Isakson said he’s confident the legislation can become law this year, but the path forward will not necessarily be a smooth one, even though VA issues remain generally bipartisan.

For deficit-conscious lawmakers, the bill’s price tag will be a big deal. An Isakson aide said the measure costs about $4 billion and is offset by roughly the same amount in savings, but a final score from the Congressional Budget Office has yet to arrive.

House Democrats in the past have objected to some of the provisions related to the firing of VA employees that are now included in the Senate bill and the White House has warned about proposals that erode federal worker’s rights too deeply, according to the Military Times.

There’s also the intraparty tussle that burst into public view earlier this month when House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Marco Rubio slammed Isakson for not working in good faith. A statement from Miller Thursday called the Senate VA bill a “positive development,” but it may take extra work on Isakson’s part to mend fences.

Isakson assumed the Senate VA chairmanship last year when Republicans won control of the Senate. A veteran himself, he has witnessed problems plague VA facilities and offices in Georgia since he was elected to the Senate in 2004.

Read more AJC VA coverage here:

VA builds $850,000 fence to help prevent veteran suicides

VA official apologizes for healthcare backlog