June 05, 2014

Udall, Heinrich Work to Increase Accountability at VA

Senators back legislation to correct underlying problems in access to medical care for veterans

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced that they have joined several Senate colleagues in introducing a bill to correct serious systemic problems that have plagued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including long wait times for appointments and a shortage of doctors and nurses.

The Restoring Veterans' Trust Act of 2014 would give the VA authority to immediately remove senior executives based on poor job performance, while maintaining due process for those employees. It would shorten wait times for veterans by enabling them to seek care at community health centers, military hospitals, or in some cases private doctors. The bill would authorize emergency funding to hire new doctors, nurses, and other providers to address system-wide health provider shortages that contribute to delayed access to care. To address the shortage of primary care physicians and attract more medical professionals in the long term, the bill would expand the VA's educational assistance program to medical students studying primary care, and authorize the National Health Service Corps to award scholarships or forgive students loans for medical students who pursue their careers at the VA.

"There is a crisis of confidence in the VA, and this bill is a strong step toward restoring transparency and accountability at the VA and ensuring New Mexico veterans get timely medical appointments. We made a solemn promise to our veterans to ensure they get the best care possible, and making good on that promise should be something we all agree on, regardless of party," Udall said. "I urge Senate leaders to seek bipartisan compromise on this emergency issue, and I also look forward to working with the Veterans Affairs Committee to include provisions from my Rural Veterans Improvement Act to address the shortage of mental health providers and high turnover among doctors and staff at rural clinics in New Mexico. The problems with falsified wait times and mismanagement must be addressed urgently, but we cannot lose sight of the broader problems with the VA health care system that must be fixed."

"The mismanagement and systemic problems at the VA demand the immediate attention of Congress. This bill is a critical step in restoring the confidence of our veterans by increasing accountability and transparency at the VA, while addressing the unacceptable wait times and shortages of doctors at our medical facilities," Heinrich said. "I'm pleased that several proposals I've advocated for in the Senate were included in this legislation, such as provisions to reduce the veterans disability claims backlog, funding for a clinical research and pharmacy coordinating center in Albuquerque, and ensuring that our veterans never lose care even in the midst of a government shutdown. The ability to maintain the strongest and most dedicated military force in the world depends on our nation's ability to keep its promises to our veterans. We can't allow for one more veteran to slip through the cracks."

The Restoring Veterans' Trust Act of 2014 would:

- Remove Poorly Performing Senior Executives: The legislation would provide the VA Secretary with authority to immediately remove senior executives based on poor job performance, while maintaining due process for those employees. It would also provide authority for VA's Acting Secretary to remove senior executives notwithstanding the 120-day moratorium in current law.

- Shorten Wait Times for Veterans: The bill would require the Secretary to prioritize contracts with Federally Qualified Health Centers, Community Health Centers, medical facilities receiving funding from the Indian Health Service, and the Department of Defense to provide hospital care, medical services, and other health care to veterans in order to shorten wait times for appointments. It would also standardize the process the VA uses to send patients into private medical care when the VA is unable to provide them the care they need in a timely manner.

- Direct Hire Authority: The bill would provide the VA with authority to hire new doctors, nurses and other providers in an expedited manner to address system-wide health care provider shortages.

- Upgrade VA's Scheduling Software Package: To address the VA's antiquated scheduling system, the bill would require the VA to commence agile development of an upgrade to its scheduling software package and to complete full deployment of the upgrade by March 31, 2016. It outlines minimum requirements for the package related to usability, functionality, and a dashboard to improve administrative monitoring of wait times and resourcing.

- Create a Presidential Commission on Access to VA Health Care: The bill would require the president to create a commission of experts to examine health care access issues at the VA and deliver a report to the president with recommended actions to bolster capacity within 90 days of the commission's first meeting.

- Authorization for Emergency Funding: This bill would authorize emergency funding to hire new doctors, nurses and other providers in order to address system-wide health care provider shortages and to take other steps necessary to ensure timely access to care.