Sen. Jerry Moran
Guest columnist
In a year when Kansans have been inundated by news reports of incidents of mismanagement and even death caused by failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there is finally good news to deliver: The U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives came together to pass compromised legislation to overhaul access to veterans’ health care by offering the choice of utilizing care outside the VA. In August, the Veterans Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (H.R. 3220) was signed into law.
I was proud to sponsor this bill, which was developed as a consequence to the deplorable situations veterans have been experiencing at VA medical facilities all across the country. Over the past few months, Kansans reached out to me every day to share their troubling experiences. The stories came from veterans, veteran family members and even fearful VA employees, across our state who spoke of turmoil in the system and veterans being made to feel like a number – rather than like patriots deserving of care from a grateful nation.
I am pleased the Senate and House did not walk away from this issue, and called on the VA to live up to its commitment to care for those who have sacrificed for our country. While H.R. 3220 offers hope to veterans by including some of the most significant reforms that have been made within the VA in decades, it is just the beginning. Congress now has the responsibility of overseeing the implementation of these vital changes at the VA.
First and foremost, this legislation takes an important step toward ensuring veterans no longer struggle with unacceptable wait times at VA facilities. Instead of waiting months, veterans will now have the new “Choice Card” which gives them the option of seeing their local physician if they are not offered a VA appointment within a reasonable amount of time.
Another important issue this legislation addresses is the burden of distance and travel time rural veterans face when seeking care at VA facilities. Kansans understand this all too well since the average driving time to a VA facility in our state is two hours. If a veteran lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility, they may now select a community healthcare provider to get the timely, quality care they deserve. This is of utmost importance to the 41 percent of veterans in the VA health care system who reside in rural areas. Every veteran deserves access to health care services regardless of where they call home.
This provision to serve rural veterans is modeled after a pilot program I led in the House, which became law in 2008 called Access Received Closer to Home or ARCH. I am pleased the compromised VA reform legislation also extends ARCH in the five pilot sites already operating across the country, including the surrounding area of Pratt, Kan. Veterans from the five ARCH pilot sites are overwhelmingly satisfied with the care they receive through the program, which was set to expire this month. This extension will make certain they may continue to receive quality care closer to home, and it is my hope that the new Secretary of the VA, Bob McDonald, will authorize the expansion of the ARCH program to serve the entire state of Kansas .
These important changes are already making a difference in the lives of Kansas veterans. Lee Mahin of Smith Center recently reached out to my office to share good news. He was surprised to receive a phone call from the VA letting him know he would no longer be forced to travel four hours to Omaha, Neb., for his colonoscopy and would now be allowed to have the exam in his hometown. The procedure has already been rescheduled and confirmed at Smith County Memorial Hospital, and Lee is appreciative that he will no longer have to arrange for someone to drive him to Omaha and sleep in hotel the night before.
In addition to ensuring timely, high-quality care, increased accountability at the VA is fundamental to change. H.R. 3220 gives the Secretary of the VA the authority to fire or demote VA executives based on their performance and misconduct. On the day of his resignation, former-VA Secretary Shinseki said he “was too trusting of some” and could not “explain the lack of integrity amongst some of the leaders of our health care facilities.” I hope Secretary McDonald wastes no time in executing this authority in the VA bureaucracy to develop a workforce that is committed to serving veterans and changing the culture of indifference.
By offering veterans choice and flexibility – and making certain bureaucrats are held accountable – this legislation will begin to improve the lives of countless veterans who have lost hope in the agency that was created to serve them. I was proud to support the passage of this important bill, but our work continues.
I will work to make certain Kansas veterans have a Department of Veterans Affairs worthy of their service and sacrifice.