HONOLULU – House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise Wednesday on a Veterans Affairs health care reform bill that would give veterans more immediate access healthcare through non-VA doctors.
That was welcome news to U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard,D-Hawaii, a veteran who was outraged over an internal VA audit released in June that showed Hawaii veterans seeking medical care had the longest wait in the country, an average of 145 days. The audit also showed some 64,000 veterans enrolled in the system for at least 10 years have yet to see a doctor.
Should the bill pass the House and Senate and be signed by the President in its current form, the federal government will set aside as much as $11 billion, in part to fund expanded access to medical care.
The VA would be required to distribute “Veterans Choice Cards” to veterans within 90 days of the law passing, which would allow veterans to access health care from non-VA doctors if they cannot secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days or if they live more than 40 miles away from the nearest VA medical facility.
The bill also allocates $5 billion to hire more medical staff and improve facilities throughout the country.
Hawaii is set to receive $15.8 million to fund the Leeward Outpatient Healthcare Access Center.
In addition, the VA must enter into contracts or agreements with the Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems to reimburse direct-care services given to veterans.
The controversial bonus system for veteran administrators alsowill be curbed under the new legislation. The bill would reduce by $40 million each year through fiscal year 2024 the amount of money the government sets aside for employee bonuses.
The pending bill also would make it easier for “poorly performing” or “corrupt” senior managers at the VA to be fired more easily or demoted, Gabbard said. The legislation provides an expedited and limited appeal process totaling 21 days for employees disciplined under this authority. The bill also disallows employees from obtaining any pay, bonuses or benefits during their appeal process.
In mid-June, following the release of the VA’s internal audit that showed Hawaii’s wait times were the worst in the country, Gabbard said she wanted Hawaii’s VA director Wayne Pfeffer to be fired.
Pfeffer refused to step down, and said his agency has since taken steps to reduce wait times from 145 days to 109 days, and to increase the number of patients each doctor sees by 100 from 1,200 to 1,300.
Gabbard said she is pleased with the compromise bill and called it “a strong, bipartisan step toward a much-needed overhaul.”