Veterans Health Care Reform So Close, Yet …?

December 1, 2017

While others in Congress were focused this week on tax reform and preventing a government shutdown in early December, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee was busy holding a hearing to get legislation passed to improve veterans' health care before leaving for the holiday.

On Wednesday, the Senate debated and passed a comprehensive bill, called the Caring for our Veterans Act of 2017, introduced by committee chair Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), which would reform and streamline VA health care and services.

“At the beginning of this year, we set out to find a way to permanently enhance veterans' access to care in their communities while also improving existing VA services,” Isakson said.

“By giving veterans the option of seeking care when and where it makes the most sense for their individual needs, we are creating a force multiplier for the VA to better utilize its resources and provide even better care to veterans,” Isakson continued. “This bipartisan, strong, balanced legislation would not have been possible without the input, contribution, and hard work of every member of our committee, the VA, and our veterans service organization partners.”

The committee's ranking member, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), echoed his support of the bill and his eagerness to move the bill forward while there was momentum and agreement on the committee. 

MOAA has supported the legislation, working closely with other veteran service organizations and committee majority and minority staffs to refine the bill over the Thanksgiving holiday in advance of the hearing.

Since 2014, Congress and stakeholders have made a priority of increasing access to health care and improving VA medical services. That was the year long wait lists and gaps in access to health care first were identified at the VA medical center in Phoenix, preventing veterans from getting necessary medical appointments.

The VA's Choice Program was established by Congress to provide short-term funding and resources for the VA to buy veterans additional access to care through community providers and help the department rebuild and expand capacity within its health system. 

But funding for the program is expected to run out this month, and Congress is under pressure to replace Choice and reform and consolidate the disparate VA community care programs.  

The committee's bill is expected to provide a long-term solution. MOAA is especially pleased to see a number of provisions in the bill, including:

 

  • Establishing a single program to provide care to veterans through community providers
  • Requiring the VA to be the primary coordinator of veterans' health care and directing the VA to establish an integrated, high-performing network to include VA and private providers
  • Requiring the VA to establish clinical standards and an appeals process for accessing care based on medical need, empowering the veteran and the VA primary care provider to work together in deciding how to obtain care in the community when access and quality measures are deficient in the VA direct-care system
  • Establishing a number of improvements to strengthen the VA direct-care system, including expanding graduate medical education, loan repayment, and residency programs for physicians, enhancing delivery of telemedicine, expanding VA's Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers Program to veterans of all eras, and strengthening workforce management and development programs for recruiting, retention, and training, as well as specific funding for improving internal VA medical capacity and facilities management. 

“MOAA recognizes the enormous bipartisan effort put forth to craft such a significant piece of legislation which improves veterans' health care while also providing a solid plan for transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs into a 21st-century health system,” says MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret).

So here we are: so close to getting major health care reform through, yet - as with many other bills introduced last year - the path to passage is fraught with many hurdles.

One of the biggest obstacle will be overcoming the enormous price tag for the bill, estimated at $54 billion over the next five years-about $15 billion higher than the House's version of the bill.

Congress and the administration also must deal with other priorities in short order, including tax reform, current federal budget limits, and government funding running out in less than a week, likely diverting attention away from VA health reform.

MOAA will continue to remain actively engaged on this issue, with the help of our members, for swift passage of a bipartisan, bicameral veterans' health care bill.  While comprehensive health care reform is the ultimate goal, short-term emergency appropriations to keep Choice funded for a few more weeks might be the more likely outcome. 

 

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