WASHINGTON – Congress has passed and sent to President Obama legislation designed to address ongoing problems within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs that reportedly led to the deaths of some former service members awaiting care at the agency’s medical facilities.
Both the House and Senate supported in overwhelming fashion a $16.3 billion measure reconciled in conference that offers $10 billion over three years to provide medical care for qualified veterans unable to get timely appointments or who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility by paying physicians outside of the VA healthcare system.
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 also includes $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses and additional medical staff and $1.3 billion to open 27 additional clinics. It also includes language that makes it easier to fire administrators and other top personnel for poor performance.
Obama is expected to quickly sign the legislation, which received bipartisan support.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee who played a major role in creating the package, said it addresses “the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care. It strengthens the VA so that it will be able to hire the doctors, nurses and medical personnel it needs so we can permanently put an end to the long waiting lists.’’
“Funding for veterans’ needs must be considered a ‘cost of war’ and appropriated as emergency spending,’’ Sanders said. “Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles.’’
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, characterized the scandal that led to the legislation as “a national disgrace” and promised the measure will “increase patient choice for veterans and introduce some much-needed accountability into the VA.”
McConnell added that “a dramatic change in culture at the VA is critical to correcting the department’s failures and to better serving our veterans.”
The VA faced heavy criticism after a report issued by the agency’s inspector general revealed that 40 patients, all former servicemen, died awaiting care at a Phoenix veterans’ facility. It was determined that employees there kept a secret list of patients who faced prolonged delays in receiving treatment. Investigators suggested those VA workers concealed the actual wait times in hopes of enhancing the perception of the facility’s performance.
Similar problems were uncovered at other VA medical facilities that serve almost 9 million veterans. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned as a result. Earlier this week the Senate unanimously confirmed Robert McDonald, former CEO at Proctor & Gamble, as Shinseki’s replacement.
An audit released in June by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that more than 57,000 veterans nationwide have been forced to wait 90 days or more for medical appointments at the agency’s facilities. About 64,000 more were included on the agency’s electronic waiting list for doctor appointments. The VA’s stated goal is to arrange appointments within two weeks or less.
The audit scanned more than 730 VA hospitals and clinics and determined that supervisors were encouraging clerks to falsify records in 13 percent of cases.
The Veterans Health Administration operates the nation’s largest integrated healthcare delivery system, managing 150 medical centers, 820 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 Vet Centers, 135 community living centers, 104 rehabilitation treatment programs and 70 mobile Vet Centers. The agency schedules about 236,000 healthcare appointments every day — approximately 85 per year.
More than 300,000 workers at various levels offer services to almost 6.5 million veterans and other beneficiaries annually.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee who led negotiations for the lower chamber, asserted that VA reform was necessary “in the midst of an unprecedented crisis caused by corruption, mismanagement and a lack of accountability across the board.”
“This is an honest solution to an urgent problem, one that is focused on making government more accountable and providing veterans with real choice in their health care decisions,” Miller said, adding that it provides Congress with an opportunity “start fixing what is now a broken bureaucracy.”
The bill drew support from a variety of veterans groups. Daniel Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion, praised it as “an important step in the process to begin repairing systemic problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs” but he cautioned “it is only one step and only a beginning.”
“The American Legion is confident President Obama will sign this measure into law so we can all continue working together toward a lasting solution to ensure reasonable access to VA healthcare and restore trust among veterans who depend on the system,” Dellinger said.
What little opposition the bill faced came from lawmakers concerned with the costs. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of three members of the Senate – all Republicans – who voted against it, expressed concern it will add to the deficit.
“Our veterans deserve solutions to the deep-rooted problems plaguing the VA, and they also deserve a Congress that has the discipline to pay for legislation it passes,” Corker said. “It’s embarrassing that Congress not only refuses to face today’s decisions with the courage our men and women in uniform have demonstrated for decades, but rushed through a piece of legislation without thoroughly reviewing its full fiscal impact on future generations and without knowing if it will address the systemic problems that exist at the VA. Congress should take time to work with the recently confirmed Secretary of the VA on cost-effective reforms that don’t put in place yet another long-term unfunded liability.”
Corker cited a report from the Congressional Budget Office that found that the $10 billion needed to pay for funding the private doctors provision in the bill will last only until the early part of FY 2016 and require billions of dollars in additional funding each year if the program is not canceled.