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VA bill to be proposed today

Plan would let vets seek help outside system


– House and Senate negotiators have reached a tentative agreement to deal with the long-term needs of the struggling Department of Veterans Affairs and plan to unveil their proposal today.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who lead the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees, continued negotiating over the weekend. Aides said they “made significant progress” on legislation to overhaul VA and provide funding to hire more doctors, nurses and other health care professionals. Sanders and Miller are scheduled to discuss their plan this afternoon.

A final cost of the far-reaching measure was not immediately available Sunday.

According to a draft summary of the measure provided by House aides, Congress would give eligible military veterans a “Veterans Choice Card” and allow them to seek health care outside the VA medical system from Medicare-eligible providers, other federally qualified health centers or facilities operated by the Defense Department or federal Indian Health Service centers.

Veterans eligible to seek care outside the system would need to be enrolled by Aug. 1, or enroll for VA care within five years of ending their military service in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the draft agreement. Veterans could leave the VA system if they are unable to receive an appointment within 14 days – the current VA wait-time goal – or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

In response to reports that workers improperly compiled written lists of patients waiting more than two weeks for appointments in order to avoid failing to meet VA guidelines on wait times, the new legislation would not allow scheduling and wait-time metrics to be used as factors in determining a worker’s performance. Instead, most performance reviews would focus on the quality of care received by veterans, according to the draft summary.

The measure also would authorize $5 billion in emergency spending to pay for hiring new employees; require VA to enter into 27 leases for new major medical facilities (none in Indiana or Ohio); expand a scholarship program for the surviving spouses of service members who died during conflicts since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and allow VA to provide counseling care and other services to veterans who suffered sexual trauma while in the ranks. Additionally, VA would be required to conduct regular audits on the accuracy of care and staffing levels at each major medical facility.