NGAUS Seeks Guard Provisions in Congressional Overhaul of Troubled VA Health Care System

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In response to the Veterans' Affiiars inspector general’s interim report on patient deaths at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced a comprehensive legislative package to address negligence of VA officials and correct serious problems in veterans’ access to health care.

NGAUS supports the efforts by Sanders and the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to ensure that the inexcusable delays in veteran health care and misconduct of VA officials are dealt with appropriately. Though the full bill text has not yet been published, NGAUS will ensure that the unique issues that National Guard veterans face are taken into account with a VA overhaul. These include the delay in care and backlogs resulting from the transfer of records from the Defense Department to the VA, physical evaluation boards and the long distances many Guard veterans are forced to travel to access VA health care.

The Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act of 2014 contains numerous provisions to provide immediate improvement to the VA health care system by authorizing firing of poor-performing senior executives, shortening wait times and establishing independent commissions to recommend best practices in streamlining veterans’ access to quality health care. Below are some of the major initiatives:

  • Grants the VA secretary the authority to immediately remove incompetent senior executives and authority for the VA’s acting secretary to remove senior executives for poor performance.
     
  •  Requires the secretary to prioritize contracts with numerous federal and DoD health care centers to provide care to veterans and shorten wait times, and standardizes the process the VA uses to send patients into private medical care when it is unable to provide timely care.
     
  • Provides the VA with authority to hire new doctors, nurses and other health care providers in an expedited manner to address personnel shortages.
     
  •  Authorizes the VA to lease 27 new health care facilities in 18 states.
     
  •  Establishes scholarship and loan repayment incentives for qualified medical practitioners and students in order to attract additional qualified health care providers.
  • Mandates the VA to upgrade its scheduling software package by March 31, 2016, and establishes minimum requirements for the package related to usability and functionality in order to provide better monitoring of wait times and resourcing. 
     
  •  Establishes independent commissions on access to VA health care and VA facility planning and project management to ensure timely access to health care and break through the backlog of facility construction.
     
  • Authorizes emergency funding for health care providers in order to address system-wide health care provider shortages.

In addition to provisions to address the issues of VA accountability, the bill also contains key provisions to support veterans and their families, including:

  • Extension of comprehensive caregiver benefits to the most severely injured pre-9/11 veterans.
     
  • Expansion of access to dental care, complementary and alternative medicine access.
     
  • Advance appropriations for the VA to ensure that veterans receive consistent access to their earned benefits, even in the event of a government shutdown.
     
  • Restoration of full cost-of-living allowances for all military retirees.
     
  • Legislative solutions to assist the VA in ending the benefits backlog.
     
  • Ensure all veterans receive in-state tuition rates covered by  the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
     
  • Extension of VA health care access for recently separated veterans from five to 10 years.
     
  • Numerous provisions to enhance the delivery of care and benefits for veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.

The Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act of 2014 is expected to be considered during a full Veterans’ Affairs Committee meeting Thursday. Since many of the provisions in the bill have already passed committee in previous legislative sessions, the bill could be put on a fast track for consideration by the full Senate. Stay tuned to www.ngaus.org for updates on Sanders’ bill and other veterans’ issues.

UPDATE (June 4, 2014): The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing scheduled for tomorrow has been cancelled with the possibility of VA legislation being voted on the Senate floor. Chairman Sanders and Senator John McCain (R-Az) met today and are negotiating legislation. McCain, along with three other GOP senators introduced the Veterans Choice Act, which provides numerous provisions to enhance veteran access to care and increase transparency of VA operations, including:

  • A Choice Card to allow veterans to receive care from non-VA providers
  • Veteran access to healthcare providers of their choice if they reside 40 miles are more from a VA medical center
  • Requires the VA to publish current wait times for every VA medical center on facility websites
  • Removes scheduling and wait time metrics as a means to determine bonuses for VA employee

The Veterans Choice Act also includes a House-passed bill that would grant the VA Secretary authority to terminate senior VA officials based on poor performance. NGAUS will continue to monitor actions in the Senate and ensure Guard-specific issues are covered in legislation.

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