Congress sends sweeping VA reform bill to Trump’s desk

Matt Saintsing
May 23, 2018 - 4:20 pm

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The Senate advanced major landmark legislation to expand veterans' healthcare options Wednesday, which now heads to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature. 

In a 92 - 5 vote, the Senate approved the VA Mission Act, a bill that aims to streamline how the VA uses private-sector healthcare, provides billions for the popular Choice program, expands benefits for veteran caregivers, and creates a review of VA infrastructure

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Corey Booker (D-N.J.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) were the only nay votes.

Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johny Isakson (R-Ga.) called the vote a "major victory for our nation's veterans." 

"I look forward to sending this to the president’s desk to be signed into law ahead of Memorial Day as a small token of ‘thanks’ to our nation’s veterans for answering the call and defending the freedoms we enjoy today," said Isakson. 

The House approved the bill last week, and Mr. Trump has signaled his support of the measure. 

In a statement, The American Legion praised the Senate's passage of the sweeping VA improvements. 

"On the behalf of our two million wartime veterans, we thank all the members of the U.S. Congress who worked with us to enact this important legislation," said Denise Rohan, The American Legion's national commander. 

"We appreciate your hard work and leadership on the behalf of our nation’s veterans. We look forward to the President signing this bill into law at the earliest opportunity, and working with the Department of Veterans Affairs as they implement this law.”

The Legion, along with dozens of other veterans groups, urged Congress to pass the bill. Here's what it does for veterans: 

VA Choice Funding and community care reform

The bill provides $5.2 billion to extend the VA Choice program, which collapses seven community care options for veterans into one, to improve access.

“Veterans have been asking for Choice reform, and responsible investments in the VA. This bill gets it done, both of them,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee at a press conference Tuesday, calling on the Senate to pass the bill. 

“Veterans shouldn’t have to drive hours to the nearest VA clinic, or wait months for an appointment. That’s why we need private healthcare to fill in the gaps when the VA can’t provide those services.”

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Where it stands now, the VA Choice program allows veterans to make medical appointments in the private sector if they have to wait longer than 30 days for a VA appointment or live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility. But under the VA Mission Act, veterans would be able to seek out civilian healthcare if they and their VA physician agree it’s in their best interest, regardless of VA appointment timelines or distance.

In voicing his support of the bill, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) told a story of a Nevada veteran who lives in a rural part of the state, and what healthcare options mean for him. 

“He had a clinic one mile from his home...one mile from his home, but he still had to drive 100 miles to get the services he needed for his healthcare,” Heller said.

“This is what the VA Mission Act means to fix. That’s why I’m so supportive of this legislation.”

The legislation does, however, include an end-date for Choice—a year after the bill is signed into law. Choice was born in 2014, in the midst of the wait-time scandal at the VA in Phoenix. The $5.2 billion in funding is intended to last through the next year.

Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has repeatedly called on Congress to provide funding for Choice by Memorial Day, May 28.

Caregiver expansion

Other than overhauling private-sector healthcare programs, the bill would also expand caregiver benefits to veterans injured before 9/11. Caregiver benefits would become available immediately to veterans injured before May 7, 1975.

And two years after the bill is signed into law, veterans injured between 1975 and 2001 would be eligible.

“Caregiver expansion has been one of our highest priorities since the program was created back in 2009,” said Gary Augustine, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran and executive director for Disabled American Veterans.

VA estimates care for disabled veterans can be as high as $400,000 annually, while the average cost of its caregiver programs are generally under $30,000 per year.

“It’s clear that expanding VA’s comprehensive caregiver program to veterans of all eras is not only the right thing to do for those who served, it is also a financially smart decision for American taxpayers,” he added.

VA Infrastructure Review

A process to determine what the VA needs in terms of a footprint is also included.

The bill tasks a commission with reviewing VA facilities and buildings nationwide and would recommend which to close, and where the VA should reinvest.

This harkens back to former Secretary David Shulkin who listed such an action as one of his priorities. The VA began this process last year of either closing, or finding another use for more than 400 buildings.

The commission would conduct the review in 2022 and 2023.

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