May 13, 2016

Udall-Championed Proposals to Improve Care for Rural Veterans Incorporated into Major VA Reform Bill

Urges Senate Action on Veterans First Act to expand services for rural NM veterans, strengthen accountability at VA

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittees on Defense and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, joined a bipartisan coalition of senators in introducing a comprehensive bill to improve access to care and services for New Mexico veterans, and improve accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Veterans First Act incorporates major provisions that Udall has championed to improve veterans' care in rural communities, fix problems with the Veterans Choice Program, and strengthen whistleblower protections.

"We have a duty to provide the best care to all of our veterans, no matter who they are or where they live. Unfortunately veterans in rural New Mexico -- and rural communities across our country - often can't can't access the care they need and have earned. That's why I'm pleased to cosponsor the Veterans First Act to improve access and quality of care," Udall said. "This bipartisan bill includes measures I've pushed for to strengthen our rural medical workforce, expand veterans' health care options and make it easier for medically trained service members to transition into VA facilities. It also takes much-needed steps to protect whistleblowers and ensure VA officials are held accountable so we can prevent the kind of mismanagement and coverups we saw during the scheduling scandal just two years ago. I urge the full Senate to take up this bill and pass it soon so we can make real progress for our veterans."

Udall has worked for many years to address concerns raised by New Mexico veterans, such as frequent turnover among doctors and nurses in rural clinics, lack of transportation to the VA hospital in Albuquerque, and significant complaints about the Veterans Choice Program. The Veterans First Act includes significant improvements similar to a bill he introduced last year, the bipartisan Rural Veterans Improvement Act, such as provisions to reduce turnover by building and retaining a rural health care workforce and making it easier for rural veterans to go outside the VA for health care.

The Veterans First Act would help build a strong pipeline of doctors and medical professionals into the VA, expand the VA's mental health workforce, and give the VA the flexibility needed to address provider shortages and recruit a staff capable of meeting the needs of veterans. It also improves the Veterans Choice Program by making it easier for veterans to seek treatment from private providers when the VA cannot provide timely or adequate care. Udall has worked to include similar provisions in the veterans' care funding bill, which passed the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this spring.

To increase accountability at the VA, the Veterans First Act would make critical changes to preserve the constitutional due process rights of federal employees and protect whistleblowers. In 2014, a scheduling scandal and the unacceptable backlog of benefits claims at VA facilities in Albuquerque and throughout the country brought to light systematic accountability and transparency problems plaguing the VA. Udall was the first in New Mexico to speak out against mismanagement and coverups in the VA and has helped lead the call for reform. At a hearing last year, Udall highlighted the importance of protecting whistleblowers who expose problems in care, and of promptly addressing the issues they reveal.

Additionally, the bill contains provisions to make it easier for survivors of veterans to receive benefits, expand education benefits, improve job counseling and training, address veteran homelessness and temporarily expand the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) led the bill, which is also cosponsored by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Robert Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dan Sullivan (R-Ark.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). The bill is supported by the Government Accountability Project, the Office of the Special Counsel, and veterans service organizations including The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Military Officers Association of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.