VA bill expected to pass

Bipartisan legislation would let locals seek help closer to home

Bipartisan legislation meant to improve medical care for veterans is expected to be approved by Congress this week and it may help meet the needs of locals by allowing them to seek care in the private sector.

The Veterans Health Administration has been rocked with scandal in recent months after it was shown that veterans were facing long wait times for appointments.

On Tuesday, a USA Today investigation found that records had been falsified at 109 Veterans Affairs medical centers to hide long wait times. The Grand Junction VA Medical Center and the Albuquerque VA Medical Health System were among those centers that had falsified records.

This news came after a June audit of the VA showed more than 57,000 veterans waited more than 90 days to get a first appointment with a doctor, and 64,000 may have never received an appointment at all.

The Veteran Affairs committees in the House and the Senate recently agreed on a multibillion-dollar bill that would fund more medical staff where they are needed most and allow veterans to go to private doctors or Indian Health Services.

The deal to help reform the Veterans Health Administration was expected to pass by the end of the week, said Mike Saccone, a representative for Sen. Mark Udall, D.-Colo. A version of the bill passed through the U.S. House on Wednesday.

Montezuma County VFW Post 5231 Commander David Johnson welcomed the news of legislation that allow local veterans to seek care close to home rather than traveling to clinics in Durango or Farmington.

Among local veterans, the longest wait times are among those waiting to see specialists like cardiologists, Johnson said. In one particular case, a local veteran has been waiting for over a year to see a neurologist, he said.

“His story is a veteran’s story, it’s not unique,” Johnson said.

Under the new legislation, veterans would be able to get medical care in the private sector if they live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic and have been unable to schedule an appointment with the VA in a timely manner.

These services would expire within two years, according to proposed legislation.

Johnson said some local veterans would be interested in private care because the VA has not kept up with medical technology available in the private sector.

“I am hoping Congress will move forward on this bill,” he said.

The bill also proposes to increase the availability of mobile vet centers with telemedicine capabilities, expands the eligibility for sexual trauma counseling to those who were on inactive duty assignments when they were assaulted and designates money for the VA to lease 27 medical facilities to expand care.

The closest new facility would be a clinical research and pharmacy coordinating center in Albuquerque. The bill designates $9.56 million for the facility.