Metro-East News

July 29, 2014

Area congressmen support deal to fix VA health-care system

A compromise bill headed to the U.S. House and Senate later this week that would inject $10 billion in emergency funding into the nation's troubled Veterans Administration health-care system has the support of metro-east congressmen.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said Tuesday they support Congress' efforts to fix the problems that have plagued the VA in recent months.

Enyart said he supported the VA Accountability Act because veterans "deserve the benefit of additional physicians and the option to see care outside VA facilities, if necessary."

The compromise deal would allow veterans who have waited more than 30 days for treatment at a VA hospital or clinic, or who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility, to obtain treatment from a private health-care provider.

The compromise, worked out by House and Senate negotiators and announced Monday, still must be voted on by the full Congress. Davis said he was backing the measure because "our service members don't have to continue to fight to receive the care that they deserve when they get home. ..."

Davis called the compromise deal a "common-sense, bipartisan solution to fix the crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs."

Shimkus said he supports the reform bill and plans to vote on it later this week, when it is expected to come to a vote.

Both of Illinois' senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, did not issue statements indicating their stands on the bill and could not be reached for comment.

The clock is ticking on the measure, however. Both chambers of Congress are set to begin a five-week recess when the session ends Friday.

The latest scandal plaguing the VA erupted in late April, when the news media began reporting, based on a whistleblower's disclosures, that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Hospital.

Congress quickly intervened when it was revealed that many of the veterans who died had been placed on secret waiting lists that prevented them from obtaining needed medical care.

The covert list was part of an elaborate scheme that VA managers had devised to hide the fact that up to 1,600 sick veterans had to wait months to see a physician.

The scandal led to the forced resignation of former Army General Eric Shinseki as the VA secretary and the appointment of Sloan D. Gibson as the new acting secretary.

One by-product of this latest VA scandal was a recent audit of 731 medical facilities nationwide. It showed that the John Cochran VA Hospital in St. Louis had the fifth-highest average wait time in the nation for veterans to see a specialist -- 86 days.

Anthony Hardy, a board member of Veterans for Common Sense, in Washington, D.C., called the proposed VA reforms "an important first step in fixing the problems of VA health-care access," as well as an important step in accountability because it makes it easier to fire senior VA executives.

But Hardy also called the measure a "far cry from everything that's needed," and "deeply disappointing." Instead of the more than $35 billion bill originally proposed, the reform measure now carries of total price tag of $17 billion.

One of the biggest shortcomings of the measure is that it fails to address the many thousands of VA health-care claims languishing in the appeals process, he said.

"Shifting veterans from one line to another is not a solution," Hardy said.

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