MOAA Testifies on Veterans Health Care and Benefits

May 22, 2015

On May 20, Col. Bob Norton, USA (Ret.), deputy director of MOAA's Government Relations Department, testified at a joint hearing before the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees.

Norton outlined MOAA's key concerns and recommendations to improve veterans' access to VA health services, upgrade existing benefits, and extend special services to disabled servicemembers' full-time caregivers.

Norton also presented MOAA's recommendations on assuring aggressive implementation of the Choice Card for veterans stuck on waiting lists for VA care, and those who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic.

MOAA was joined by the national commanders or representatives from the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Blinded Veterans Association, and partners from The Military Coalition: AMVETS, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the Non-Commissioned Officers Association of America. 

Norton described outsourced care as "a wobbly, three-layered cake: the first layer is local purchased care contracts, the second layer is the VA national patient-centered care contracts (PC-3), which got some primary care icing added on to the specialty care contract, and the third layer is the Choice Card program for rural veterans and veterans stuck on long waiting lists."  

Because purchased care complements VA's direct care system, MOAA recommends Congress engage the Commission on VA Care to map out a long-term strategy to integrate all aspects of VA managed care. Given the importance and scope of designing VA care for the 21st century, the Commission on Care should be given a year to develop a plan.

MOAA also urged Congress to support other changes to the way VA does business, including:

  • - Building up the capacity to deliver VA care more efficiently in its facilities by hiring and training more providers, fixing the scheduling system, and reengineering clinical space along the lines of leading civilian health care entities;
  • - Recruiting more mental health providers and training them on the unique needs of veterans;
  • - Extending the time surviving spouses have to use new GI Bill "Fry Scholarships";
  • - Authorizing VA benefits to Vietnam War "blue water" Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange;
  • - Providing veterans status to career National Guard and Reserve members eligible for non-regular retired pay who are entitled to certain veterans' benefits, but do not have active duty service under Title 10 orders; and
  • - Extending special services and support to the full-time caregivers of severely disabled veterans who served before Sept. 11, 2001.

Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), chair of the House panel that oversees veterans' disability assistance, questioned what could be done to make further progress on the claims backlog. Norton said that new legislation, S. 1203 , offers "practical, low-cost measures" aimed at further improving the claims system. Norton added that MOAA is working with the DAV and other groups to streamline procedures governing appealed claims, which currently take about three-years on average to resolve.

Norton described the plight of Coast Guard veteran Alexis Courneen who suffered a severe brain injury in service in 1999. Her husband Jason is her full-time caregiver, but the couple is ineligible for respite care, CHAMPVA, training, and a stipend under the Caregivers Act. Under current law, those benefits are only available to catastrophically disabled veterans who served after Sept. 10, 2001.

In response to Norton's testimony that, "there's no policy reason to exclude Alexis and Jason from Caregivers Act benefits," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said that the committees were taking up the issue soon.