House-Senate Conference Committee unveils major VA reforms
WASHINGTON – Today, the House-Senate Veterans’ Affairs Conference Committee unveiled major VA reforms that expand access to care, increase medical staff and boost accountability. Arizona’s Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and Sen. John McCain serve on the 14-member bipartisan panel, whose members were chosen because of their leadership on veterans’ issues.
On June 11, Kirkpatrick introduced the House companion bill to the McCain-Sanders VA reform bill, which had overwhelmingly passed the Senate. The agreement announced today largely reflects the contents of McCain’s and Kirkpatrick’s bill, the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014, with negotiations centering primarily around funding levels.
Kirkpatrick fought to ensure the final agreement strengthens access to care for all veterans, in particular for Arizona’s rural and tribal veterans who may struggle simply because of where they live. She succeeded in including language that strengthens the relationship between the VA and the Indian Health Service in terms of outreach and partnership efforts.
The reforms will expand access to care by allowing veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility – or veterans facing lengthy waits to schedule appointments – to instead seek care with private doctors who take Medicare, community health centers, Indian Health Service and Department of Defense facilities.
In a speech on the House floor on Friday, Kirkpatrick also called for the final legislation to include resources to speed up the hiring of VA doctors, noting that “if we do not address the VA’s doctor, nurse, and medical support staff shortage now, we will face the same crisis again in two years. Just yesterday, I learned that the one physician serving the community-based outpatient clinic in Flagstaff, Arizona, is leaving. There is no physician identified as a replacement. In another VA clinic in my district, the one doctor there is planning to retire without a replacement doctor identified.”
The agreement announced today will:
- Allow veterans who live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or veterans who try to schedule an appointment but cannot get one to instead seek care with private doctors who take Medicare, community health centers, Indian Health Service and Department of Defense facilities.
- Allow the immediate firing of high-level officials who are incompetent in their duties.
- Provide for a more expedited hiring of new medical personnel at hospitals and clinics that lack enough doctors, nurses and other medical staff to provide quality care in a timely manner.
- Require VA, in consultation with Indian Health Service, to conduct more outreach to IHS tribal health programs to ensure they are aware of the opportunity to negotiate a reimbursement agreement. Require VA, in collaboration with IHS, to better measure ways to implement and oversee the existing partnership efforts under the current VA-IHS Memorandum of Understanding.
- Allow the VA to lease 27 new medical facilities that would expand access to care.
- Ensure that private providers receive prompt payment and reimbursement from the VA for care provided to veterans.
- Ensure that all recently separated veterans taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
- Extend Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits to surviving spouses of veterans who have died in the line of duty.
- Improve access to health care for military sexual assault survivors.
“This is a victory for veterans, and it’s the foundation for a veterans-focused VA,” Kirkpatrick said. “Today’s announcement signals an important new era of accountability. Delayed care is denied care, and veterans who have been denied the care they deserve will now have expanded access, more doctors and a system that puts veterans first.”