U.S. Rep. Ron Barber today introduced bipartisan legislation to improve veterans' access to health care by making it easier for them to be treated by private doctors and other caregivers.
"Our men and women in the military stepped up when this nation needed their service," Barber said today. "We as a nation now must fulfill our promises to these veterans by making it as easy as possible for them to receive the care they need without excessive waits or travel."
Barber today introduced the Veterans Health Access Act, cosponsored by Rep. Todd Platts, a Pennsylvania Republican.
"Our nation has no higher calling than ensuring that our men and women in uniform who have served in harm's way receive the highest quality medical treatment," Platts said today. "By providing veterans with more health care options and giving combat-injured service members full access to Department of Defense medical services, this legislation helps our nation fulfill its duty to these American heroes by helping them lead meaningful and productive lives post-injury."
There are nearly 100,000 veterans living in Barber's Southern Arizona district and he has been talking with them about veterans' issues that need to be addressed. In those discussions, Barber heard praise for care by the Veterans Administration but concerns about access to it.
In most cases, veterans who receive care from Veterans Affairs administration must be treated at VA medical facilities. But veterans in urban areas often deal with long waits. Veterans who live in rural areas often must travel long distances, many times for procedures that might make travel that much more difficult.
Some veterans require care that is unavailable at VA facilities or they would benefit from specialized care elsewhere. Veterans with mental health issues have another problem: There simply are not enough mental health practitioners at VA facilities to provide timely and ongoing service.
It is quite difficult for veterans to get VA approval for treatment by private doctors or at private facilities. Permission is granted on a case-by-case basis for so-called "fee-basis care."
Barber's bill requires that the VA give primary consideration to the best interests of the veteran in determining where and by whom veterans are treated. That determination would have to take into account distance, wait time and quality of care, thereby allowing more veterans to qualify for fee-basis care.
Barber's bill also would require that the VA respond to a veteran's request for fee-basis care within 30 days, eliminating long wait times that now are common.
In 2008, a provision was passed to help service members who were suffering with combat-related severe injuries and transitioning to VA care. This provision authorized any former member of the Armed Forces with a serious injury or illness to receive the same medical and dental care as a member of the Armed Forces on active duty as long as they could not find the same care with the VA.
That authorization is scheduled to end on Dec. 31. But Barber's bill would extend that until Dec. 31, 2016.
Barber introduced the bill after discussing it last week with members of his Veterans Advisory Council. Members were supportive of the bill and suggested several changes that Barber incorporated into the final version of his legislation.
This is the third bill Barber has introduced and two have dealt with veterans' issues. In July, Barber introduced the bipartisan Protecting Veterans' Pensions Act, which will target financial companies that take advantage of veterans by selling them estate planning services and other unneeded financial services.
Barber is a member of the newly formed Veterans Job Caucus, which has committed to help find jobs for the approximately 800,000 veterans looking for work.
Since he took office in June, Barber offered an amendment that sought to shift funding within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide housing vouchers for homeless veterans while saving money by reducing administrative costs. He also joined a strong bipartisan majority in the House to approve legislation that will help veterans find employment and increase the amounts paid to disabled veterans and their survivors.