Begich Pleased Senate Quickly Passes Veterans Access Reform Bill
Begich Notes Key Provisions Already Working in Alaska VA System
After urging his fellow senators to use Alaska as a model for reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), U.S. Senator Mark Begich today voted for passage of the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 which includes several provisions already being implemented in Alaska.
The bill passed the Senate by a strong bipartisan vote of 93-3.
“This was a critical step that needed to be taken quickly and will improve access to care for thousands of veterans in Alaska and across the nation,” said Begich. “I urge the House to pass the bill as soon as possible and the President to sign it into law. I have been fighting these issues since my first day in the Senate and I am pleased we have seen real results when it comes to better care for our veterans. It is unacceptable, however, that it took a media firestorm to get more attention on these issues in these issues in the rest of the country. I will continue to fight to make sure that all our veterans have access to care and resources they have earned.”
The bill that passed the Senate today includes reforms that:
- Provides the VA Secretary with the authority to dismiss Senior Executive Service employees for underperformance, with the right to an appeals process without pay that would last no more than 30 days;
- Requires VA to establish disciplinary procedures for employees who knowingly falsify data pertaining to wait times and quality measures;
- Enhances collaboration between the VA and Indian Health Service (IHS) so that VA can expand outreach to IHS tribal health programs to negotiate reimbursement agreements and is modeled after the aggressive work Begich did to expand VA access in Alaska;
- Expands choices for health care providers to enable veterans to choose a provider at Federally Qualified Health Centers, Department of Defense or Indian Health Service facilities—similar to the system currently in place in Alaska;
- Provides expedited hiring authority for VA doctors and nurses and additional authority to hire new providers;
- Require extensive reviews to identify staffing shortages at each VA Medical Center;
- Extends counseling and treatment to service members who suffered sexual trauma while on inactive duty;
- Expands eligibility for care and services for military sexual trauma at a VA facility to active duty service members;
- Provides in-state tuition rates to new veterans eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill;
- Expands Marine Gunnery Sgt. John David Fry Scholarship to include surviving spouses of service members who were killed in the line of duty.
Last week, Begich spoke on the Senate floor and highlighted the Department of Veterans (VA) in Alaska "a model for the nation," urging his colleagues to follow Alaska’s lead on VA health care access and to put aside partisan politics in order help increase accountability. Begich described measureable progress in Alaska’s VA health system. Alaska is home to 77,000 veterans and has the highest proportion of veterans in the country – over 13 percent of the state’s population. With many of the veterans living in rural communities off the road system, the Alaska VA and its partners have had to develop innovative programs to ensure delivery of care to Alaska veterans, some who live hundreds of miles from the nearest VA clinic.
Begich, a member of both the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, has pushed for increased funding for the VA and for innovative programs to provide better access to care and to attract more qualified providers to work in VA health facilities across the nation. Examples include:
The Hero Card: This program enables Alaskan veterans to use their vet identification cards to access health care at most Indian Health Service (IHS) funded tribal clinics and hospitals across Alaska. This enables Alaskan veterans to get care in their own communities instead of travelling to the VA for care, a trip that can cost thousands of dollars and be challenging for ill vets. Begich helped implement this program by pushing the VA and tribal health entities to enter into an agreement through which the tribal hospitals and clinics are reimbursed for the cost of providing care to veterans. As a result, veterans all across Alaska can now get the care they need closer to home.
Contracting with Local Providers for Primary Care: In the past the VA has been reluctant to contract out for medical services, only outsourcing services for cancer treatment and other advanced medical care. Without adequate staffing to meet the growing demands from Alaska’s increasing veteran population, the wait list for primary care treatment grew until more than 900 vets were on the Alaska waiting list for primary care—a list that averaged a 60-90 day wait. At Begich’s urging, the Alaska VA entered into an agreement with Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center (ANHC), a federally qualified health center, and private practices such as the Cornerstone Clinic, Providence Hospital and Southcentral Foundation for primary care.
Forward Funding for VA Health Services: In the past, the VA faced significant challenges because of sporadic funding. In order to buffer the VA from the funding inconsistencies, in 2009 Begich and the members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved forward funding for VA health care. That is, the VA could rely upon a dedicated, uninterrupted funding stream for two years. This significantly increased the ability of the VA to deliver services more effectively, recruit and hire more staff and purchase equipment and supplies more efficiently. Begich recently introduced S. 932, the Putting Veterans First Act, which would forward-fund the budget for the entire Department of Veterans Affairs.
Public Health Officers: Begich proposed that the VA reduce wait times for veterans seeking medical care by filling current staffing vacancies at VA clinics with public health officers. In a letter to then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Begich called on the agency to exercise its authority under 42 United States Code Section 215 to request U.S. Public Health Service officers to fill VA clinic staff vacancies. Public Health Service officers have a proven record of providing quality health care to underserved populations around the country.