WASHINGTON — Sweeping legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs and improve health care services for millions of vets in Nevada and other states is heading toward a vote in the Senate this week, where it is expected to pass with bipartisan support.
Key senators met with leaders of 38 veterans service groups on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, just before the Senate voted 91-4 to limit debate and allow a vote on the VA Mission Act as early as Wednesday.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the bill would streamline community care programs, improve health care delivery and expand caregiver programs.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sought to blunt criticism of the bill, saying the legislation is the best defense against privatization. He called the current VA Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive care from community providers if the VA cannot provide such care in a timely manner, “a wreck.”
“Veterans deserve more than a ‘thank you;’ they deserve a health care system that works,” Tester said at a news conference in the Senate Russell Office Building.
Nevada is home to over 300,000 veterans. Nevada chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars support the bill.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., agreed with Tester that that Choice Program has failed to serve veterans. He said the VA Mission bill would provide changes that would better serve veterans, particularly those in rural areas.
It would also expand caregiver programs to serve those injured while in service before Sept. 11, 2001, the current cutoff date for existing programs due to budgetary restraints.
Heller, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was part of a bipartisan coalition that included Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sidney Blumenthal, D-Conn., Isakson, Tester and others who wrote the legislation.
A similar bill passed in the House with bipartisan support, 347-70. Of the Nevada lawmakers, Republican Mark Amodei and Democrats Jacky Rosen and Ruben Kihuen voted for the bill. Democrat Dina Titus voted against it.
Titus said the bill “puts the VA on a path to privatization that hurts our veterans and their families.”
She said a provision in the House bill would create a commission to recommend closing and consolidating clinics and facilities in underserved communities. She said any closures would be bad for communities like Las Vegas, which face a shortage of doctors and nurses.
Tester dismissed the privatization claims, saying the VA would remain as coordinator for veterans’ care, whether they choose to select services and physicians outside the VA system.
Tester and Isakson also dismissed criticism of the bill over its whopping $52 billion price tag.
“Taking care of veterans is the price of war,” Tester said.
The bill is supported by President Donald Trump and acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
The VA Mission Act of 2018
Highlights of the bill awaiting a Senate vote:
— Streamlines VA community care programs.
— Consolidates seven community care programs into one.
— Allows access to walk-in clinics for enrolled veterans.
— Removes the 30-day/40 mile rule that allowed outside care depending upon appointment time or distance to a facility.
— Creates standards for timely payments to community care providers.
— Improves VA health care delivery.
— Allows VA professionals to practice telemedicine.
— Provides resources to hire and retain VA professionals.
— Establishes mobile deployment teams for underserved rural facilities to provide specialized care.
— Expands caregivers program.
— Eligibility for the VA caregiver program expanded to veterans of all generations, not just those after Sept. 11, 2001.
— Requires VA to implement a technology system to support, assess and monitor the program.
Source: Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee