By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
A bill giving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs more flexibility when working with community providers for veteran care moved one step closer to reaching the Senate floor last week.
The measure, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., would help fix the struggling Veterans Choice Program by streamlining and consolidating community care programs, and removing other bureaucratic hurdles.
“The Choice Program is not working for Montana veterans,” Tester said. “Montanans’ frustrations with Choice, along with mine, are growing every day.”
As proposed, Tester’s Improving Care in the Community Act would give the VA more flexibility in directing veterans to the care they most need. It also strengthens VA provider agreements to ensure the care is provided in a timely manner.
The measure also consolidates the VA’s community care programs into one program with uniform eligibility criteria and a single set of clinical and administrative systems, Tester said.
“My bill will increase veterans’ access to care, reduce wait times, and uphold the commitment our nation has made to the men and women who have served,” Tester said.
Provisions of the bill are included in the larger Veterans First Act, which received unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate VA Committee.
The measure has also won the support of David Shulkin, the VA Under Secretary for Health, who believes it will improve many ongoing issues with the Choice Program and allow the VA to better address the health care needs of veterans.
Failing to pass the bill could have “an enormous negative impact on veterans’ access to health care,” Shulkin added.
The larger Veterans First Act would also bolster VA efforts to recruit more mental health counselors, address leadership vacancies across the VA, expand services for homeless veterans and implement stronger opioid prescription guidelines.
Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act in 2014. It was initially seen as a way to better fund and reform the VA, though Tester believes the program has fallen short of achieving its goals.
“Choice is broken, and it is not working the way it was intended,” Tester said. “This bill will increase veterans’ access to care both inside and outside the VA, and it will better deliver on the commitment this nation has to the folks who served.”