March 10, 2016

Udall at VA Budget Hearing: Improve Access to Care for Rural Veterans

Also presses VA Secretary on restoring trust in VA, continuing burn pit exposure research

WASHINGTON - Today at a hearing about the fiscal year 2017 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), U.S. Senator Tom Udall continued his call for the VA to improve care for veterans living in rural New Mexico and rural communities across the country.

Udall has championed the need to improve access to rural veterans' health care through expanded use of telehealth technology, increasing transportation options and by addressing high turnover among doctors and nurses at rural community-based VA clinics. During the hearing, Udall pressed VA Secretary Robert McDonald about what resources he needs to continue to recruit talented medical staff to VA facilities.

"Access is essential and can be particularly difficult in rural states like New Mexico, partially due to problems with retaining practitioners," Udall told McDonald. "What could be done in your opinion to either incentivize or streamline the process to hire new doctors and nurses?"

McDonald replied that the VA is "amping up" its recruiting of physicians, particularly osteopathic doctors, across the country. VA Under Secretary of Health, Dr. David Shulkin, added that the VA is also working to expand training and offer incentives, such as debt reduction programs, to encourage young physicians to practice in rural communities.

Udall thanked the administrators and said he hopes the Department will work with the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, a new medical college affiliated New Mexico State University.

Udall also highlighted the need for the VA to continue rebuilding trust with veterans following a scandal over medical center appointment scheduling at the VA hospital in Albuquerque and others across the country. Udall was among the first lawmakers to call attention to the problem of veterans waiting months for appointments, and he has led the push for reforms. McDonald, who was named secretary in the wake of the scandal, said the VA has continued to work to identify trouble spots and challenges, but he acknowledged that improvements are still needed. "For an example, we've had over 110 investigations just on scheduling alone," McDonald said. "Of those 110 plus, only 77 have been completed... It shows you the enormity of what we're talking about, and also the fact that we're not done yet."

Finally, Udall urged McDonald to continue work to provide care for veterans exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Udall and Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) passed legislation that was signed into law in 2013 creating a burn pit registry, similar to one for Agent Orange after the Vietnam War, to help document health issues and ultimately improve care for victims. "I'm ... glad to see that the VA's budget justification specifically supports research into exposure to airborne particulate matter from burn pits," Udall said. "I look forward to an update on this research as it moves forward and how we can ensure veterans get the treatment they need for such exposure."