Maryland lawmakers: New bill a 'critical first step' in solving VA issues

For Dr. Tom Berger, long wait times for medical appointments and treatment for veterans are nothing new. 

“We’ve been dealing with it for 15 or 20 years,” said Berger, executive director of the Veterans Health Council for the Vietnam Veterans of America. “We’ve been at war for 12 years now, and the health care of our veterans has completely fallen off the radar.”

Last week, the Veterans Affairs Department released an audit that found more than 57,000 patients are waiting for initial medical appointments at more than 700 VA hospitals and clinics, 90 days or more after requesting them.

In Focus | A veteran and his family from Baltimore outline their struggles in getting appointments with VA doctors. Monday @ 6

Berger is hopeful that a measure passed last week by the Senate will give him access to health care and will help clean up the scandal. The House passed a similar bill last week.

“The problem is the devil is in the details,” Berger said. “How is this actually going to be implemented by the VA? What are the things they are going to do?”

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VA medical centers have come under fire for long wait times, particularly in Phoenix, where 40 veterans died waiting for treatment at a VA hospital. The scandal led to the resignation of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The audit blamed a confusing appointment process for the wait times. Among wait times for patient primary care, Baltimore ranked fourth in the nation with an average wait time of 81 days.

“It’s gotten a lot worse,” Berger said. “But we were previously told there were no wait times. Obviously, they were not telling us the truth.”

Lawmakers from Maryland were quick to condemn the audit and urge Congress to move forward on legislation to fix the problem.

Baltimore's wait times didn't surprise U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Baltimore County), who said the top complaint his case workers receive is problems with the VA.

Maryland's VA system includes the Baltimore and Perry Point VA hospitals, as well as the Loch Raven VA Community Living and Rehabilitation Center.

"Wait times of this length are completely unacceptable, which is why we need to allow our high-priority veterans to opt out of a failed veteran health system," said Harris, a Navy veteran and doctor who worked in the military and veteran health systems, said in a news release.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), released a statement last week saying she was "outraged" by the audit, though she also noted it wasn't all bad news.

The audit showed that for existing VA patients in Maryland, the wait time to see a doctor is as low as four days. It also didn't find evidence of any wrongdoing by VA employees in Baltimore, Milkulski said.

The senator supported the Veterans' Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, which the Senate passed last week. The bill would give veterans access to private doctors, community health centers, Department of Defense medical facilities and facilities funded by the Indian Health Service.

It would also allow veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to access more convenient private care.

In addition, the bill would expedite the hiring of new medical personnel at understaffed hospitals and clinics, allow the VA to lease 26 new medical facilities that would expand access to care and allow the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to terminate senior VA employees for poor performance.

Mikulski said the bill would also help veterans transition into civilian life by requiring public universities and colleges to give local veterans in-state tuition while using the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Also last week, the House passed a similar bill, the Veterans Access to Care Act of 2014, which will allow veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system for a two-year period if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Prince George's County), called the bill "a critical first step" toward ensuring veterans get the care they need, when they need it.

"It is my hope that the Inspector General’s investigation uncovers the core problems at the VA," Edwards said in a statement. "But in the meantime, we must take steps to ensure our veterans get off the waitlist and into doctors’ offices to have access to timely, comprehensive health care. This legislation empowers veterans with choice in finding alternative medical care while the unconscionable backlog is reduced."
 

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