The Senate has approved a bill that would make significant changes at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, including a new commission to examine VA’s construction projects and programs.

The Senate’s measure, which the chamber passed on June 11 by an overwhelming 93-3 vote, next must be reconciled with a VA bill the House cleared a day earlier on a 426-0 vote.

The House bill calls for a broad assessment of VA’s medical system but does not specify actions related to the department’s construction program.

The Senate bill, introduced by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), would establish a 13-member panel to study VA medical-facility construction projects and leases and recommend ways to improve the department's program and projects.

A May 2013 Government Accountability Office report looked at four major VA projects and found cost increases ranging from 59% to 144%, compared with initial estimates.

GAO said it recognized that "some cost increases and schedule delay result from factors beyond VA's control" but said its review of large projects indicated that "weaknesses in VA's construction management processes also contributed to cost increases and schedule delays."

Neither the Senate nor the House bill authorizes any funding for VA construction.

In separate legislation, congressional appropriators are recommending a major 2015 boost for VA’s account for major construction projects. The spending measures that cleared the full House and the version the Senate Appropriations Committee approved would hike that program’s budget 64%, to $561.8 million. (Major projects are those whose costs exceed $10 million.)

But those same appropriations bills would slice 2015 aid for VA minor construction projects. The House bill’s cut is 31%; the Senate committee version’s reduction is 24%. VA minor projects received $714.9 million in 2014.

Appropriators also are directing the VA to consider changes to its construction program. In the report that accompanied its spending bill, the House committee said it wants the VA to work with other agencies and the private sector to look at alternative financing mechanisms for construction projects, including sale-leaseback deals with private developers.

Senate appropriators are calling for the VA to explore an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers to do “a design evaluation of currently troubled projects” and apply recommendations from that study to future projects. The Senate panel also urges the VA to reevaluate and expedite its procedures for handling change orders.