Congress sends VA overhaul to White House

WASHINGTON (AP/WANE) – Congress passed a landmark bill Thursday to help veterans avoid long waits for health care and fix other problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A 91-3 vote in the Senate sent the $16.3 billion measure to President Barack Obama for his signature. The House had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill on Wednesday.

“This compromise legislation will bring several much-needed reforms to the VA,” said Indiana Republican Senator Dan Coats.  “Increasing accountability and providing veterans facing unacceptable waits for VA medical care with the option to receive private-sector treatment are positive steps.  The legislation also includes a number of provisions that will provide needed reforms to the VA health care system.”

The legislation is a response to reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and cover-ups of the delays at several of the VA’s 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics.

“This commonsense, bipartisan legislation should help ensure Hoosier veterans can receive timely access to the quality health care they deserve,” said Indiana Democrat Senator Joe Donnelly.  “Reforming the VA and changing the culture at VA facilities won’t happen overnight; however this bill will begin to address the problems revealed at too many VA health facilities.  This legislation should help improve veterans’ access to care, provide VA facilities with more resources to meet the needs of our heroes, and increase accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

The bill devotes $10 billion in emergency spending over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for qualifying veterans who can’t get timely appointments at VA hospitals or clinics or who live more than 40 miles from one of them.

Area veterans who spoke with NewsChannel 15 were pleased with the news, and said they’ve heard of long waits at the VA hospital in Fort Wayne.

“I’ve been in the system for 12 years,” stated David Hess, a local Army veteran.  “I’ve had good luck with them, but I know a lot of guys who have had terrible luck.”

Ed Martin served in the Army, and his two children also served in the military.

“You got some complaints,” said Martin.  “And you got some who think Fort Wayne is top notch.”

The legislation also includes $5 billion for hiring more VA doctors, nurses and other medical staff and $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA clinics across the country. In addition, the legislation makes it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior VA executives for negligence or poor performance.

Voting against the bill Thursday were Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. They said they fear the legislation will swell future budget deficits.

A spokesperson with the VA of Northern Indiana said his office could not comment on the legislation until the bill is signed into effect by President Obama.

According to Donnelly’s office, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act has many provision that seek to reform the VA in the wake of recently identified misconduct and unacceptable wait times at numerous VA facilities.  It will:

  • Enable Veterans to Access Care Outside the VA: If veterans are unable to get a VA appointment within 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA health facility, they will be able to access care through non-VA providers using a new Veterans Choice Card.
  • Increase the Number of VA Health Providers: The VA will have special authority to quickly hire doctors and other medical staff in occupations facing the most critical shortages.
  • Give VA the Authority to Fire or Demote Agency Officials:  It will be easier for the VA to fire or demote senior VA officials based on poor job performance or misconduct.
  • Institute Smarter Performance Metrics: With input from the Inspector General and independent reviews, the VA will be required to eliminate performance metrics that incentivize bad behavior, ensuring that job performance is measured by the quality of care veterans receive.
  • Require Independent Reviews of VA Health Care: The President will be required to create a Commission on Access to Care to examine how best to structure the Veterans Health Administration, locate health resources and deliver care to veterans, and the commission will be required to send recommendations to Congress. Further, an independent third party will separately assess the process for scheduling appointments for veterans, and a separate task force will review VA’s scheduling software and make recommendations for improvements.
  • Improve Transparency Concerning VA Wait Times: The VA Secretary will be required to publish wait-time goals for scheduling an appointment at VA facilities for each medical center, and the VA will be required to publish online the current wait times for appointments for each primary and specialty care VA medical center.
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