With the ouster of General Eric Shinseki from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a symbolic change has been made, but what will cause real improvement in a bureaucracy now famous for covering up long wait times in its provision of care to veterans?
On Sunday, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), announced legislation to reform the VA. His bill hasn’t been introduced yet. Some of its provisions come from omnibus legislation that was reported out of the Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this year: S. 1982, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. But let’s run down what it does, based on a release from the senator’s office.
The bill has two major sections. The first is dedicated to supporting VA health care and increasing accountability in that department. Provisions in this area include:
Removal of Incompetent Senior Executives:
The bill would provide the VA Secretary authority to immediately remove incompetent senior executives based on poor job performance while maintaining due process for those employees. It would also provide authority for VA’s Acting Secretary to remove senior executives notwithstanding the 120-day moratorium in current law.
Shortening Wait Times for Veterans:
The bill would require the Secretary to prioritize contracts with Federally Qualified Health Centers, Community Health Centers, medical facilities receiving funding from the Indian Health Service, and the Department of Defense to provide hospital care, medical services, and other health care to veterans in order to shorten wait time veterans may be experiencing. This legislation would also standardize the process VA uses to send patients into private medical care when VA is unable to provide them the care they need in a timely manner.
Direct Hire Authority:
The bill would provide VA with authority to hire new doctors, nurses, and other providers in an expedited manner to address system-wide health care provider shortages.
Authorization of Major Medical Facility Leases:
The bill would authorize the VA to enter into 27 major medical facility leases in 18 states and Puerto Rico.
National Health Service Corps Partnership:
The bill would deem VA facilities as eligible to receive designations under the Public Health Service Act. This would allow National Health Service Corps participants to receive scholarships and loan repayment for employment at VA facilities, making it easier for VA to attract needed personnel.
Expansion of Health Professionals Educational Assistance Program:
The bill would extend access to VA’s health care scholarship program for those individuals pursuing a medical degree with the intent of specializing in primary care.
Upgrading VA’s Scheduling Software Package:
The bill would require VA to commence agile development of an upgrade to its scheduling software package and complete full deployment of the upgrade by March 31, 2016. It also contains minimum requirements for the package related to usability, functionality, and a dashboard in order for better administrative monitoring of wait times and resourcing.
Presidential Commission on Access to VA Health Care:
The bill would require the President to create a commission of experts to look at VA health care access issues and recommend actions to bolster capacity. A report to the President would be required within 90 days of the commission’s first meeting.
Presidential Commission on Capital Planning for VA Medical Facilities:
This bill would require the establishment of a Commission on Capital Planning for VA medical facilities to improve VA’s cradle to grave capital asset processes, from
facility planning and project management to finding ways to break through the backlog of identified construction and renovation projects.
Authorization for Emergency Funding:
The bill would authorize emergency funding to hire new doctors, nurses, and other providers in order to address system-wide health care provider shortages and to take other steps necessary to ensure timely access to care.
A second set of provisions is meant to support veterans and their families:
The bill would extend comprehensive services and benefits to the most severely injured pre-9/11 veterans and offer wrap-around services to all other caregivers.
VA Dental Care and Complementary and Alternative Medicine Expansion:
The bill includes provisions that would expand access to VA health care–including complementary and alternative medicine–and dental care, in a cost-effective and equitable way.
Advance Appropriations for VA:
The bill would ensure veterans receive consistent access to the benefits they have earned by establishing advance appropriations for the mandatory accounts at VA.
Restoration of Full COLA for Military Retirees:
The bill would restore full cost-of-living adjustments for all military retirees.
The bill would help veterans who have suffered significant spinal cord, reproductive, and urinary tract injuries start a family.
Ending the benefits backlog:
The bill would support VA’s ongoing efforts and would make needed improvements to the claims system.
In-State Tuition Assistance for Post-9/11 Veterans:
The bill would “our transitioning servicemembers a fair shot at attaining their educational goals without incurring an additional financial burden.”
Extension of Health Care Access for Recently Separated Veterans:
The bill would extend from five to ten years unfettered access to VA health care for recently separated veterans to address their health care needs early.
This legislation contains important provisions that would improve the delivery of care and benefits to veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.
There’s no cost estimate for the bill yet, of course. Keep watching this space for information on the bill’s introduction and it’s cost to the American people.