Veterans Affairs Department file photo

Congress Could Almost Be Done With VA Reform for the Year

Senate passes bill making it easier to fire incompetent VA officials and expanding veterans' access to health care.

The Senate's passage Wednesday of legislation intended to stop veterans from dying waiting for health care is likely to be Congress's last major reform bill for the year to address failings in veterans' services or clean up the embattled Veterans Affairs Department.

The bill, which makes it easier to fire incompetent VA officials and expands veterans' access to health care, passed the Senate 93-3. The legislation still needs to be reconciled with similar legislation passed by the House before it can be sent to President Obama and implemented into law.

The reforms are being heralded on Capitol Hill as a significant step toward trying to cut down the long wait times for health care that have left veterans languishing in need of medical service for months on end—or unable to even get onto wait lists at all. But it doesn't come close to solving all of the problems facing veterans or the VA, such as the disability-claims backlog which has roughly 300,000 claims pending for 125 days or more and the total inventory of claims hovering just under 1.3 million. It also fails to address several shortcomings in benefits, planning for future veteran needs, and vulnerabilities in its funding structure.

"It's a huge concern," said Robert Norton, a deputy director of the Military Officers Association of America. "I would say we are worried that, assuming they pass the VA health care access and accountability, they probably will say, 'We are done for the summer.' They may come back and look at something in the fall, but more the likelihood is we may get kicked to the curb until after the elections and then we are into the lame duck."

Lawmakers themselves were mixed Wednesday on whether Congress would have the political will to come back to address any additional VA issues this year—or, frankly, whether additional veterans' legislation was necessary.

"I don't know what more legislatively [we need]," said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who cosponsored the VA health care legislation. "But there are systemic problems, and this is a huge step in the right direction."

The House has passed a smorgasbord of bills to address a variety of VA issues, but the Senate was unable to pass an omnibus veterans' bill earlier this year from Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, largely because of Republicans' objections to its cost and offset.

With so much difficulty in getting bills through the Senate, once the chamber has tackled an issue, the sentiment is usually that the box has been checked. This is particularly true in an election year, where the window for legislating is condensed and the end of the year is typically left to play catch-up on expiring provisions and other must-pass measures that lawmakers were unable to finish—or unwilling to touch before November.

"I can guarantee there will be more issues," said Sen. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican. "I think in terms of a major piece of legislation the answer is yes, this will probably be the last big reform bill on the VA this year, just simply because once legislation is passed, it does take some time for implementation just to see how it's working."

Both the House and Senate have primarily sought to use the power of the bully pulpit to put pressure on the VA to improve its backlog of disability claims. And there are a number of other veterans' benefits and advanced appropriation issues that veterans' groups want to see addressed, but they say they are worried they may have lost a golden opportunity for action.

"I'm hoping that the House and Senate and the administration do not ignore this issue," said Ronald Abrams, executive director with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, who works on veterans' claims issues. "Right now it burns brightly.... Once the outrage passes, stuff happens, and it goes to the back burner."

Joe Moore, an attorney and partner at Bergmann & Moore, a Bethesda-based law firm that handles Veterans' disability-claim appeals against VA, said Congress should do more to hold the VA's feet to the fire on processing disability claims and appeals.

"VA's inability to process disability claims in an accurate and timely manner would be improved significantly if VA shared accurate facts with Congress," he said.

"Congress should mandate that VA provide Congress frequent and transparent budgeting, staffing, training, accuracy, timeliness, and other pertinent facts, so VA can issue complete, accurate, and prompt disability-claim decisions for our veterans."

Louis Celli, legislative director at the American Legion, said the group would like to see the claims backlog issues addressed, an additional VA accountability measure from Maine Democrat Mike Michaud that would make the VA submit a 5-year plan, and urgent congressional pressure brought to bear on the VA's and Defense Department's plans to share health data.

"VA and DOD are bordering on contempt of Congress by not providing a comprehensive plan to fix the integrated health care records project, and the claims backlog," he said. "Every initial claim that is stalled represents a veteran who cannot access VA health care until they get their disability rating. Waiting for compensation aside, they need access to the VA."

The Military Officers Association of American and the Disabled American Veterans want to ensure that training available for home caregivers of disabled veterans is expanded beyond just Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to veterans of all conflicts.

These veteran' groups are also seeking to expand the VA accounts funded in advance, known as "advanced appropriations," to ensure that VA services are not vulnerable to gaps in coverage if there is another government shutdown.

Also on MOAA's wish list are provisions to expand survivor benefits to those who remarry as early as age 55 so that they are commensurate with other federal survivor benefits, and to allow career reservists eligible for pensions to be honored as veterans even if they never served on active duty.

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