WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe hailed legislation overhauling veterans health care programs as an important step toward rooting out waste and abuse, while Sen. Tom Coburn was one of only three senators to oppose the bill.
The Senate approved the final version, 91-3, on Thursday night after passage in the House on Wednesday by a vote of 420-5. All five U.S. House members from Oklahoma supported the legislation. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill soon.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, was among the senators who crafted the final version, and he has praised elements of the bill, including the new flexibility for firing senior officials in the Veterans Affairs Department and the restrictions he put on acquiring space for a new outpatient clinic in Tulsa.
But he tried to block the legislation Thursday afternoon because of the amount of new money authorized primarily for new facilities and health care professionals to clear a backlog of cases.
In remarks on the Senate floor, Coburn said, “Since 2009, the VA budget has increased 58.7 percent. (There has been) a 40 percent increase in the number of providers, with a 17 percent increase in the number of veterans using those providers.
“The problem is not money at the VA. The problem is management, accountability and culture. So we are going to borrow $12 billion from our children and reward the poor behavior.”
In an interview, Coburn said he was pleased that he had revised the parameters of the proposed Tulsa clinic.
Coburn complained in June that VA officials wanted to build a Taj Mahal in Tulsa.
“I got it down to reasonable dollars and reasonable square footage,” he said.
“Here are the numbers on Tulsa: Over the next 20 years, they expect a 7.2 percent increase in patient load — total — and they wanted to expand from 60,000 to 190,000 square feet. And at the end of their lease, they’d be paying $90 per foot per year. And that’s ridiculous.
“And so we put some limitations in the bill on what Tulsa can do. And they have to compare it on a 30-year time frame so that you have more likelihood that they build something rather than rent something because that’s much cheaper for the federal government.”
Coburn said he didn’t care whether the VA built a new facility or leased space in Tulsa to modify.
“I think they should get the best economic deal for the taxpayer, which they weren’t,” he said.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, made little mention of the Tulsa clinic in a statement issued Thursday night; he had earlier expressed relief that funding was restored in the final version after Coburn had stripped it from the earlier one.
Inhofe said his caseworkers in this year alone have helped 800 veterans deal with various problems with the VA, and he encouraged all veterans needing help to call his office.
The legislation approved Thursday is a step toward reforming an overburdened and unnecessarily bureaucratic department, he said.
“For veterans who run into trouble accessing care from the VA, they will have the option to seek care from non-VA providers for up to three years while the department works to reduce wait times,” Inhofe said.
“The legislation also includes language ... that will empower the VA secretary with the ability to clean house and quickly remove employees contributing to the current environment of fraud, mismanagement and neglect. We cannot understate the importance these reforms will have on correcting the culture of waste and abuse that has plagued the VA for decades.”