In August of 2014, then-President Barack Obama signed into law a $16 billion VA Healthcare Bill. The bill was an attempt to make sweeping improvements to the Veteran's Affairs System and allow more veterans to use private healthcare facilities. The overall objective was to create a significantly shorter wait time for veterans looking to receive healthcare, something most veterans could tell you that, prior to 2014, was nothing short of nightmarish.
What is the Veterans Healthcare Bill?
In order to understand what the Veterans Healthcare Bill is and what it promises, it is important to know why this bill came about in the first place. The grim history of the issues leading to the bill lead us to where veterans' healthcare stands today.
History of the Veterans Healthcare Bill
Titled the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, the Veterans Healthcare Bill was signed into effect in August of 2014 by Barack Obama. The bill had been brought to the floor by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY-5) in October of 2013. What brought this party-uniting bill to the forefront of the House and Senate is fairly disturbing.
The bill was primarily an attempt to right the wrongs discovered in the Veterans Health Administration scandal of 2014. In April of 2014, CNN released a shocking news report, detailing how veterans died while waiting to receive care at Veterans Health Administrations facilities in Phoenix, Arizona. Two months later, VA internal investigations revealed that 35 vets had died while waiting for care at VHA facilities in Phoenix. Several other VHA locations in the U.S. were identified as having the same problem, prompting a criminal investigation by the FBI.
The findings resulted in several firings and resignations of VA executives (including that of the VA's then-secretary, Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May of 2014), relocating $390 million in the VA budget to fund vets outside the VA system, deployment of mobile VA medical units, and providing more protection for whistle-blowers facing backlash from reporting problems in the VA.
As a result, the bipartisan Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 has brought about some improvements for veterans requiring healthcare. However, there is still debate as to whether the bill is truly achieving its somewhat large goals.
What the Bill Guarantees
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act was set forth to do multiple things. Its primary goals are:
- To broaden the availability of healthcare services for veterans through agreements with non-Department of Veterans Affairs entities
- To further develop collaborative efforts between the VA and Indian Health Service
- To develop better collaborations between the VA and Native Hawaiian healthcare systems
- To restructure a pilot program of enhanced contract care authority for veterans
- To prompt payments made by the VA
- To transfer the authority for healthcare payments from non-VA providers to the VA's chief business office
- To address administrative issues within the VA
- To remedy the staffing shortage at VA healthcare facilities
- To expand healthcare for veterans who have experienced sexual trauma and gain reports of military sexual trauma
- To extend the pilot program of assisted living services for vets with traumatic brain injuries
- To remove senior VA executives for professional misconduct or poor performance
- To develop more funds and designations
- To enhance education opportunities at institutions of higher education for veterans
These goals led to the establishment of the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive care within their communities. If you are a veteran and have been or will be waiting more than 30 days for VA medical care or must travel over 40 miles to the closest VA facility, you can qualify for assistance. The Veterans Choice Program does not effect pre-existing VA benefits of any type.
The Veterans Choice Program holds that participating healthcare providers must accept Medicare rates, meet all Medicare conditions, comply with state and federal regulatory requirements, be fully licensed to practice healthcare in their state, have the same or similar credentials as VA staff, and send medical record copies to their contractors.
Is the Bill Actually Helping?
Although the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was signed into law, there is lingering debate about just how helpful the bill has actually been. In July of 2016, VA data showed that 526,000 veterans had to wait longer than one month to receive healthcare. Approximately 88,000 veterans had waited over three months to receive healthcare.
Unfortunately, there is also still a shortage of staff at VA hospitals. The Act granted $2.5 billion of its total $16 billion fix to adding staff to VA medical centers. It appears that the VA has hired staff at about the same ratio it would have without the $2.5 billion in funding, and the newly-hired staff members were not being sent to the VA hospitals with the longest wait times, such as the VA hospital in San Diego.
Georgia's Republican Senator and chair of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, Johnny Isakson, stated in August of 2016 that progress had been made, though it was a slow-rolling process. He stated that it was still uncertain whether the bill was able to bring about enough positive changes for veterans' healthcare.
Politicians from both major parties remain critical of the bill and see the need to push for better services. During his bid for the presidency, President Donald Trump stated that the status of veterans' healthcare was "totally inexcusable" and in need of further reform. Around the same time, Barack Obama claimed that, while progress had been made, the veterans' healthcare system was still very much a work in progress.
The VA was originally created to fulfill President Abraham Lincoln's goal for the U.S. government "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." Politicians are still pushing for better quality care for veterans.
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 seems to be only a stepping stone in progressively bettering the healthcare treatment veterans receive from the VA. Some people hope that the newly-formed administration under President Donald Trump will continue to push for better, quicker access to quality healthcare for veterans.