West Virginia politicians are working hard to pass legislation that will help improve veterans’ access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities before Congress breaks for vacation in August.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, the longest serving member of the Senate Veterans Committee, was one of 28 Congressional representatives named to the conference committee earlier this month that was charged with reconciling the separate veterans’ health care bills passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. The merged legislation will now be sent to both the Senate and House floors for final passage.
“No bill is perfect,” Rockefeller said. “But this agreement proves that Congress can work together toward the common goal of protecting the health and well-being of our veterans.
Key provisions of this bill include:
• Providing $5 billion for the hiring of physicians and other medical staff and the improvement of the VA’s physical infrastructure to accommodate additional personnel.
• Creating a Veterans’ Choice Card that allows veterans to seek care from non-VA health care providers if they are unable to secure an appointment within 30 days or reside more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility. Veterans are eligible for this program if they are enrolled in the VA health care system as of Aug. 1 or are newly discharged combat veterans.
• Allowing the Secretary to remove or transfer senior executives based on poor performance or misconduct, while maintaining individuals’ rights to an expedited appeal, and mandating the VA to establish disciplinary procedures for employees who knowingly falsify wait time data. The bill also requires the VA to ensure that scheduling and wait-time metrics are not used as factors in determining performance awards, thereby removing the incentives that led to widespread dishonesty regarding patient wait times at the VA.
• Extending the Health Professionals Educational Assistance Program to December 31, 2019 and increasing the maximum scholarship amount to $120,000.
• Increasing the number of graduate medical education residency slots by up to 1500 over a five-year period.
• Extending counseling and treatment for military sexual trauma and expanding eligibility for care and services at VA facilities to active duty service members.
• Expanding scholarships to surviving spouses of service members who died in the line of duty.
• Requiring in-state tuition at public institutions for G.I. Bill recipients.
“Since Congress first learned of the egregious mismanagement and dishonesty surrounding high wait times for veterans seeking care at the VA, I have made it clear that providing the very best care for our veterans should be our first priority — so I am pleased this compromise legislation gives the VA many of the resources it needs to immediately begin addressing the gaps that led to the current crisis,” Rockefeller said.
“While this bill is a positive first step toward fixing problems at the VA, it is one of many steps Congress must take if we are truly committed to both addressing the deep-seated problems that have plagued this agency for so many years and the growing needs of veterans returning from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
An updated audit by the VA this month showed that about 10 percent of veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics still have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment. About 46,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments, the report said, and an additional 7,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said the VA is making improvements, but said veterans in many communities still are waiting too long to receive needed care. The VA provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans.
The House and Senate are set to adjourn at the end of the week until early September, and lawmakers from both parties have said completing a bill on veterans’ health care is a top priority.
Congressman Nick Rahall has addressed the U.S. House and Senate multiple times, urging members and leaders to pass this legislation before the term ends.
“We urge you to not let the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives go out of session prior to a successful resolution to the Conference Committee that was formed to work out a compromise between the Senate and House versions of the Veterans’ Access to Care Act, and its subsequent passage in both chambers of Congress,” Rahall said.
“The health of the veterans who have served us so bravely should not be placed on the back burner while Congress is away during the August district work period. Our veterans have served the nation with honor, and we owe it to them to waste no more time in ensuring they have access to the best health care possible. In light of recent serious complications and allegations of wrong-doing within the VA, in addition to validated long wait times at VA medical facilities, it is extremely urgent that a fix be put into place as soon as possible.”
The proposed bill seems to be favored by both branches of Congress and is expected to pass within the next couple of days.
(Karissa Blackburn is a reporter for the Logan Banner. She can be reached at 304-784-7329 or on Twitter at @kblackb2)