Heck working on legislation to cut red tape on veterans care

WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Heck is preparing a bill to cut red tape that hinders doctors at Nellis Air Force Base from treating veterans needing specialized care not available at the VA hospital in North Las Vegas.

Heck, R-Nev., said the bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to accept the credentials of physicians who practice at the O’Callaghan Federal Hospital on the base, and from doctors preparing to leave the military.

He said Thursday some military medical professionals are discouraged from extending their care to veterans because it takes nine months to a year to become accredited by the VA.

“We have active-duty physicians at O’Callaghan in specialties that are not present over at the VA facility,” he said. “When a veteran needs a specific procedure they may be sent out to California or Utah (VA centers), because they don’t have the appropriate specialty (at North Las Vegas), even though that specialist is over at O’Callaghan.”

Heck, a physician, said vascular surgery and ophthalmology are among specialties where Nellis doctors could fill a gap in care. VA officials in Southern Nevada have acknowledged it takes up to six months to schedule an ophthalmologist for cataract surgery.

Richard Beam, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada VA, acknowledged credentialing processes differ for the VA and the Department of Defense.

“The process isn’t as seamless as we would hope,” Beam said.

Before the North Las Vegas medical center opened in August 2012, the VA and the Air Force shared O’Callaghan Hospital, with veterans treated in a hospital wing.

“There was more crossover because procedures were being done in the joint facility,” Heck said. “However, in government bureaucracy, once you have a separate, freestanding VA facility, the practitioners have to be credentialed by the Veterans Administration.”

Heck’s plan is among a number of proposals as lawmakers look to expand veterans’ health care access.

Among others, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., is preparing a bill to establish medical residency programs at veterans hospitals to supplement doctors and train and recruit new ones.

The issue moved to the front burner in the wake of audits showing thousands of veterans having to wait more than three months for their first appointments, and thousands more who may not have been able to obtain appointments at all.

The VA also has been rocked by allegations that officials in medical centers manipulated data to hide the long waits.

House and Senate bills passed this week would allow veterans to seek care from private doctors at government expense if they face long waits at VA centers. That might only be of limited help in Nevada, as the state already suffers from a doctor shortage, lawmakers said.

“This alone won’t solve the problem,” Titus said this week, pointing out Nevada ranks 46th per capita for family physicians, 50th for psychiatrists and 51st for general surgeons.

“Veterans are not the only ones who are waiting for health care; everyone is affected,” Titus said.

The House and Senate bills vary in several ways, and include other provisions to expand veterans health care, including money to lease two dozen new health centers in 17 states. Leaders said they were confident a final version can be written and approved by the end of the month.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at STetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.