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The heat is on

After all the hollering, foot-stomping, and flag-waving Congress has done on the Veterans’ Affairs Scandal of 2014, their ability to actually get something accomplished will be under scrutiny in the next few weeks. Debates will begin on the recently re-introduced Veteran Affairs legislation dealing with a veteran’s ability to access healthcare.    Last week, the House and the Senate overwhelmingly approved their own committees’ respective bills. Here’s how both sides of the legislative branch broke down the priorities.

The House Bill:

  • Requires the VA to pay for outside medical care for veterans unable to get prompt treatment from the agency or who live at least 40 miles from a VA facility.
  • Prohibits bonuses for all VA employees through 2016.
  • Requires independent assessment of VA health programs and obliges agency to report to Congress on how it implements audit recommendations.
  • Complements earlier House-passed bill making it easier for VA secretary to fire agency officials.

The Senate Bill:

  • Requires VA to pay for outside medical care for veterans unable to get prompt treatment from the agency or who live at least 40 miles from a VA facility. This would last two years.
  • Bars VA from awarding bonuses to employees for meeting goals for prompt scheduling of patients’ appointments.
  • Allows VA to enter leases for 26 major medical facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico.
  • Makes it easier for VA secretary to fire or demote agency officials.
  • Gives the VA 60 days to create disciplinary procedures for workers who knowingly falsify wait-time data; requires agency to publish goals for wait time for appointments and actual wait times at each medical center.
  • Expands military sexual trauma services and requires reports on domestic abuse in veterans’ households.
  • Allows agency to quickly fill medical jobs with greatest shortages.
  • Requires public colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition rates for veterans regardless of where they live and allow tuition assistance for surviving spouses of troops who died in the line of duty.

How to cover the cost of this bill is a subject already in contention. The Congressional Budget Office released a statement earlier this week, estimating that these new proposals will cost roughly an additional $35 billion a year for the next two years, rising to approximately $50 billion after that. The CBO’s statement triggered more argument on funding. There are those that believe fixing the beleaguered VA is an emergency and should be paid with emergency funds. Others believe that VA mismanagement shouldn’t be considered an emergency, and that before anything is enacted, funds must be found to cover the costs, before Congress creates a new “open-ended entitlement”.

A few short weeks ago there wasn’t any arguing over the cost of getting our veterans their health care. A few short weeks ago, every American had his/her patriotic shirt on, demanding answers and funding for our vets. Now words and phrases are being tossed around like “entitlement” and “all-you-can-eat-buffet”. The same talking heads that were appalled by Shinseki’s “negligence” are now saying, “Well hold on just a minute, who is expected to pay for this?”

In the words of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), “One of the costs of war is taking care of the men and women who fought in those wars. We have the moral obligation to do everything we can to make them whole, to provide the benefits and medical care to which they are entitled, If anybody disagrees with taking care of veterans, they shouldn’t send them off to war in the first place.”

Amen.

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by Lora Wentzel, Veterans Advocate

July 9, 2014

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