Two bills dealing with the long-term health care crisis in the Department of Veterans Affairs passed the Senate Tuesday by unanimous vote.
In the toxic Us vs. Them atmosphere of Capitol Hill, consensus is rare enough, unanimity almost unthinkable. But the two VA measures the upper chamber approved this week were not rationally debatable.
The first measure, already approved by the House and ready to be sent to the president’s desk, is an emergency spending bill that will provide $2.1 billion to fund for another six months the Veterans Choice Program that pays for private medical care for vets who can’t get timely attention at VA facilities. According to the New York Times, VA Secretary David Shulkin said that without an infusion the program would be broke before the end of this month.
The spending bill also provides $1.8 billion for regular VA health services, including leases for new facilities.
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Veterans Choice is a direct result of the 2014 VA health care scandal that appalled and outraged the whole nation. Exposed first at the Phoenix veterans hospital and later at other VA facilities around the country (including in Georgia) was the harsh reality of vets waiting months just for an appointment, and of falsified records that concealed that reality. More than a few veterans died during interminable waits for medical care to which they should have been entitled. Now veterans who must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility are covered for medical care outside the system.
The second bill addresses the same issue on a procedural rather than a budgetary basis: It would streamline the process by which veterans appeals over disability claims are heard, allowing the option of “express” appeals under certain guidelines. Now, the Times reports, vets sometimes wait five years or more for appeals to be resolved; the disability claims bill is geared to eventually reduce the average wait to a year or less.
“It is critical,” Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told the Times, “that the Veterans Choice Program has the funding to continue offering timely appointments for veterans in their own communities.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., himself a veteran, said the nation can’t “send our veterans back to the status quo of never-ending wait-times for appointments and substandard care.”
These are necessary and overdue reforms, to be sure. But they would apply mostly going forward; they neither resolve the problem of, nor fund solutions for, the remaining backlog of some 470,000 VA appeals. Hiring enough additional VA personnel to resolve those cases over 10 years would cost about $800 million, Shulkin has estimated.
The spending bill doesn’t just pay for another six months of veterans’ care; it’s also buying time for Congress to come up with some answers. Unfortunately, it’s time too many vets don’t have, or have lost too much of already.