June 19, 2014
Congress is rushing to pass a compromise drafted by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ.) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that claims to rescue vets from deadly wait lists. House and Senate leaders are conferring on a final version, congratulating themselves for bipartisanship. But in truth, the bill won't speed up healthcare for vets. The fine print sabotages vets wanting to go outside the VA system.
Last week, the VA's internal investigation revealed that 57,436 newly enrolled veterans are facing wait times of at least 90 days for a first appointment, and 63,869 vets who signed up with the VA in the past decade never got an appointment. At least 23 vets died while waiting. Worse, three-quarters of VA facilities manipulated waiting lists or kept dummy books.
The Sanders-McCain bill will let the waiting and corruption continue. Yes, the bill creates a "Choice Card" permitting veterans to access civilian care if they live 40 miles or more from a VA hospital or can't get an appointment within the VA's definition of an acceptable wait time. But the devil is in the fine print.
Sanders opposed the Choice Card until the final negotiations, and inserted language in the bill making it almost impossible to use the card. That's deliberate. Unions have fought every program to use civilian care. Nine of Sanders' top ten campaign donors are unions.
Even Republican lawmakers are rushing to pass this sham bill. On Thursday, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing, but not much hearing occurred. The reception was hostile when I testified how the bill's actual language protects union jobs, not sick vets.
Sec. 301 says vets seeking civilian care have to get a letter from the VA secretary confirming that a VA appointment isn't available. Good luck getting that letter. Some vets have called and e-mailed their local VA for six months or more without getting any response.
Hurdle No. 2 comes at the non-VA doctor's office. The Choice Card tells the doctor: "Please call the Department of Veterans Affairs phone number specified on this card to ensure that treatment has been authorized." Good luck getting that call answered.
To top it off, the bill stipulates that the choice-card program will end in two years -- probably only a few hours after the VA finally gets the hotline set up and issues the cards
In another meaningless gesture, the bill also requires the VA to publish wait times on its Web site. That's a white flag, not a reform. Brits and Canadians are used to seeing hospital wait times in the newspaper. But most Americans don't have to cope with long waits, so why should our vets?
Nothing in the Sanders-McCain bill puts vets in the driver's seat. They still can't escape the VA without active help from the VAs bureaucrats.
Guilty bureaucrats. But the bill is toothless to discipline them: Sec. 408 says that any employee caught falsifying data about wait times or the quality of care vets get will be subject to "a penalty the secretary considers appropriate after notice and opportunity for a hearing." No mandatory minimums.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) asked top VA deputy Robert Petzel (now resigned) whether someone caught lying about wait times should be fired. Petzel replied "I don't know whether that's the appropriate level of punishment or not."And what if the secretary does try to fire someone? Current civil-service protections make that nearly impossible. The bill claims to shorten the process, but has a loophole (Sec. 409) that would allow it to drag on indefinitely.
VA managers are circling the wagons. Federal Managers Association President Patricia Niehaus insists that "it is unacceptable for anyone in Congress to call for a streamlining of firing high-level, or any level of federal employee, based simply on appearances or uninvestigated accusations. "Uninvestigated? There have been numerous investigations in the last decade.
Nevertheless, the Sanders-McCain bill calls for not one but two more commissions. More reports that will go unread. At Thursday's hearing, it was obvious Veterans Affairs Committee members had not even read the bill they are hurrying to pass. But that's what Congress does. It holds hearings. It doesn't solve problems.
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