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‘There Is a Lot Yet to Be Done’

VA Reform Law Falls Short, Sanders Says

  • Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., answers questions about legislation that Congress recently passed to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs during a press conference at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)

    Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., answers questions about legislation that Congress recently passed to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs during a press conference at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., discusses legislation that Congress recently passed to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs during a press conference at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)

    Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., discusses legislation that Congress recently passed to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs during a press conference at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., answers questions about legislation that Congress recently passed to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs during a press conference at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)
  • Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., discusses legislation that Congress recently passed to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs during a press conference at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on August 6, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)

White River Junction — U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders came to the Veterans Affairs hospital here Wednesday to praise, with only faint damnation, legislation that will provide the embattled agency with $16.5 billion for hiring doctors, building clinics and paying for outside care for veterans who would otherwise face long waits or lengthy drives.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was “a compromise that I would not have written,” said Sanders, who as chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, played a leading role in forging the deal. Yet its passage was a significant achievement in “a dysfunctional U.S. Congress where very little is getting done,” he said.

Veterans groups also offered lukewarm support. The measure was overdue and “only a Band-Aid and one that will soon fall off,” said Paul Rieckoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

The bill was “an important step in the process to begin repairing systemic problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger. “But it is only one step, and only a beginning.”

On Monday, White House officials said President Obama plans to sign the bill today.

The new law, which passed the Senate 91-3 and the House of Representatives 420-5, came after disclosures this spring that some veterans waited for months to get appointments for VA medical care and that some administrators fudged the numbers when they reported waiting times. In May, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned under fire. On July 29, the Senate confirmed former Procter & Gamble Chief Executive Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary.

Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democratic Party and has defended the VA from the fiercest attacks, offered his own measured critique on Wednesday.

“The quality of care is good,” he said. “The problem is accessing the (VA) for help, getting into the system.”

Problems worsened after the VA set a system-wide goal of reducing waiting periods for appointments to 14 days when in some areas there were inadequate staff and facilities to meet that goal, Sanders said. Rather than miss targets and lose bonuses, he said, there were “people who lied, people who manipulated data.”

Sanders said the system was challenged by the need to provide services to an aging veteran population, the growing volume of veterans seeking care — 6.5 million a year currently, up from 5 million a year four years ago — and the increasing complexity of the problems for which they need help, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Those pressures exposed weaknesses in a giant agency with an annual budget of about $160 billion.

“There has been an ossified bureaucracy at the VA for a number of years,” Sanders said. “People on the ground are not communicating effectively with Washington and vice versa.”

Some critics have noted that the new law does not provide funds to upgrade the software and hardware of the VA’s problem-plagued appointment system. Sanders acknowledged that shortcoming and that the agency did “not have the quality IT (information technology) to make sure that” the appointment system worked well.

The new law will allocate $10 billion to pay for medical care from providers outside the VA system to veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or face a wait time longer than a VA-set standard that is expected to be about 30 days, Sanders said. That would be enough to fund outside care at least through late 2015, the Congressional Budget Office estimated. Because the VA has satellite clinics in Colchester, Rutland, Bennington, Brattleboro and Newport, he said, “the 40-mile provision is not going to impact Vermont very much.”

Another $5 billion would pay for loan forgiveness to medical students and others who become caregivers at the VA and for slots for additional residents who would receive medical training while giving care at the VA. While more money was needed for staff expansion, he said later, the bill’s funding would be adequate to cover the costs of the hiring push for the next year and a half.

About $1.5 billion would be used to build 27 new VA facilities, although none would be in Vermont or New Hampshire, Sanders said.

Some veterans groups have characterized the new law as only the first round of reform that would leave the VA system still hungry for change. Sanders said that while some of his “conservative colleagues would not consider that an appetizer,” he would continue to advocate for additional improvements to the VA system, including provision of non-service-related dental care, financial and respite support to family members who care for disabled veterans who served before 9/11 and in vitro fertilization services for veterans who suffered injuries that left them unable to have children.

“There is a lot yet to be done,” he said.

But he remained upbeat: “The legislation will take us a significant step forward in addressing the needs of the veterans community in America and the VA.”

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.