President Signs VA Bill into Law

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On Thursday, President Barack Obama signed a VA reform bill into law that will allow tens of thousands of military veterans to receive long awaited care from private doctors almost immediately, according to Matthew Daly and Darlene Superville, Boost for vets’ health: Obama signs new law. Other changes will take awhile under the $16.3 billion law marking the government’s most comprehensive response to the Veterans Affairs scandals that led to the ousting of Eric Shinseki as VA Secretary. Veterans who waited at least a month for a medical appointment or live 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs hospital or clinic will now be able to see a private doctor at a cost to the government. VA officials said the law will also allow the expansion of VA staff by hiring thousands of doctors, nurses and mental health counselors to alleviate the long wait periods, however, this will take months to years to complete as the VA will also open 27 new clinics across the country taking two years. Obama signed the bill at Fort Belvoir, an army base in Virgina just outside Washington where service members, veterans groups and military leaders attended the ceremony with lawmakers from both parties. Obama, during the ceremony, said: “This will not and cannot be the end of our effort. And even as we focus on the urgent reforms we need at the VA right now, particularly around wait lists and the health care system, we can’t lose sight of our long-term goals for our service members and our veterans.” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, “Anybody who thinks this is going to fix the problem is not being honest about this” citing a host of issues the bill leaves unaddressed, from veterans’ suicides and homelessness to a stubborn backlog in disability claims. Daniel Dellinger, national commander for the America Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, said: “But it is only one step and only a beginning.” Under the new law, employment rules will be revised to make it easier to fire senior VA executives judged to be negligent or performing poorly, according to the article. The former Proctor and Gamble CEO turned VA Secretary on July 30, McDonald, travels to Phoenix Friday to visit the VA hospital where the scandal began amid reports of secret waiting lists and patients dying before they could receive care. The VA reported in mid-July that 35,000 vets had a waiting period of 90 days for initial appoints, down from 57,000 mid-May, and last week announced its plan to fire two supervisors and discipline four other employees in Colorado and Wyoming accused of falsifying health care data. According to AOL’s report, Major provisions of veterans health care bill, congressional budget analyst put the cost of the bill at $16.3 billion over three years and estimates it will add $10 billion to federal deficits over the next 10 years. Here’s a summary of the legislation provided by AOL:

-Devotes $10 billion to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live far from them. Only veterans who enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away are eligible for outside care.

-Devotes $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical and mental health professionals.

-Authorizes $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA outpatient clinics and other medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico.

-Grants the VA secretary authority to fire immediately poor-performing senior executives. They would have seven days to appeal, with a final resolution 21 days later.

-Expands a scholarship program for children of veterans killed in the line of duty to include surviving spouses.

-Allows all returning veterans and eligible dependents to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

-Cuts funding for annual bonuses for VA employees to $360 million, $40 million less than last year.

Allegations of A Continued Cover Up at Phoenix VA

PHOENIX, AZ  - JUNE 5:   New Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson.  (Photo by Laura Segall/Getty Images)

PHOENIX, AZ – JUNE 5: New Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson. (Photo by Laura Segall/Getty Images)

At the Center of the nationwide scandal, the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix has had an employee, scheduling clerk Pauline DeWenter, come forward claiming that an ongoing cover up of patients death have occurred and she had maintained a private list of veterans who waited months for appointments. According to the Arizona Republic on June 23, 2014 and the interview DeWenter did with CNN, she has spoken to the VA Office of Inspector General investigators about the list, turned over evidence and reported her suspicions of cover up. DeWenter claims someone change entries on the electronic appointment records of veterans who died while waiting for care from “deceased”  which she entered to “entered in error” and “no longer needed” with some being made in recent weeks. DeWenter further describes that a Phoenix VA Medical Center supervisor told her to gather new patient appointment request and put them in her desk due to the overwhelming influx of patients in early 2013. She further claims that more than 1,000 veterans were placed on the private list and remained there for weeks or months because they couldn’t be scheduled within the 14 day goal for wait times. She objected to doing so but was forced to by the Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman in an effort to cut wait times. At a congressional hearing last Monday, Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., asked VA officials including assistant deputy undersecretary Thomas Lynch if the VA was aware of these claims during the four visits made to the Phoenix facility. Lynch replied, “I’m not aware of the revelation. I am aware that the OIG is looking carefully at all of the deaths that have occurred. I do not know of any attempts to hide deaths, congresswoman.”

Dr. Sam Foote, the retired VA physician who exposed the practice earlier this year, has kept in communication with DeWenter since December about the waiting list and questions why the VA left the former hospital management in place after the problems were found. While the appointment delay issue was first discovered in Phoenix, it was discovered that the issue is widespread throughout the VA nationwide. The VA, serving 9 million veterans, has struggled to deal with the mounting evidence that workers falsified reports on wait times in an effort to cover up long delays in medical appointments. An internal audit found that more than 57,000 new applicants have had to wait three months for their first appointment, while an additional 64,000 newly enrolled vets never got them. The director of the Phoenix VA, Sharon Helman has gone on administrative leave and the FBI has launched a criminal investigation of the facility. Back in Congress, both the House and Senate have passed legislation requiring the VA to pay private providers to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get a prompt appointment. Each chamber has appointed committees to deal with the differences in the two bills with lawmakers meeting Tuesday.