WASHINGTON – The Senate easily approved extensive reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs extending benefits to more Veteran caregivers, averting a funding crisis and increasing Veterans’ access to private-sector health care.
The bill went through multiple iterations and debate dragged on for months, at times dividing Veterans groups and straining ties between lawmakers and the VA. The legislation went to the President and was signed before Memorial Day.
“We finally dealt with the accessibility of health care for our Veterans,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In response to the 2014 VA wait-time scandal, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, creating a program that allows Veterans to receive private-sector health care and ease demand on VA services.
When Veterans Choice Program was implemented many Veterans thought the rules were too rigid, especially ones in rural areas.
The VA Mission Act upends the current program. Once the new rules are put into effect, Veterans will be allowed into the private sector if they and their VA doctor agree it’s in their best interest. A host of issues could be taken into consideration when making that decision, including whether the Veteran faces an “unusual or excessive burden to accessing a VA facility.”
The bill introduces the possibility of Veterans receiving access to the private sector if their closest VA is determined to be “deficient” compared to other nearby facilities.
In the instance the VA rejects a Veteran’s request to go into the private sector, they could appeal it.
The new program is expected to be implemented one year after the bill is enacted. In the meantime, the VA will continue to use the Choice program.
Congress allotted $10 billion for the Choice program and was expected to run out of money May 31. The Mission Act authorizes $5.2 billion for the program, expected to keep it going until next May.
During negotiations about changes to the Choice program, many Veterans organizations worried unfettered access to the private sector would erode VA resources and eventually dismantle the agency – an occurrence often referred to as “privatization.”
But major Veterans organizations support the VA Mission Act, which they believe does enough to stymie a flow of Veterans and dollars into the private sector.
Shulkin and five other former VA secretaries signed a statement of support for the bill.