Senator Lisa Murkowski today was pleased to address key Alaskan priorities for the state's military community through her work on the Military and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee -- including an unprecedented attempt to address the vast backlog of veterans' benefits claims within the Veterans Administration (VA). In addition to getting the VA to better address its treatment of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) through adding language to the MilCon/VA FY2014 appropriations bill, Murkowski was also able to improve the prospects for thousands of Alaska's rural vets by heightening accountability through:
(A) A mandatory progress report on the progress made in implementing the VA's historic partnership with the Indian Health Service to provide rural health care to veterans;
(B) Added scrutiny to VA decisions that send Alaska veterans out of state for care, incurring expenses, and
(C) A study on the feasibility of creating temporary "pop-up vet centers" for rural veterans at events that draw large groups of Alaskans together, and "virtual vet centers" that take advantage of 21st century technology like Skype and Facetime to enable real-time communications with rural veterans and counselors.
"Alaska's veterans face a battleground of bureaucracy when it comes to getting the benefits they have earned -- and often have to travel unnecessary distances and pay unnecessary expenses to do so," Murkowski said. "One of the reasons I asked President Obama to keep VA Secretary Shinseki on duty for his second term was that General Shinseki has a deep commitment to easing the paperwork and speeding up the process -- today's appropriations bill marks a large stride in that direction. I am also proud of the increased attention and research that the VA is giving to our ALS-stricken veterans, to ease their pain and help them fight this awful disease."
Veterans Affairs Backlog:
Outlined within the bill is a 10-point action plan focused on investing in service, while adding increased oversight and responsibility, including language that:
Directs $175 million to operate and improve the Veterans Benefit Management System
Directs $10 million to fund overtime and training efforts within the VA
Increase training in quality and quantity and regular testing for claims processors
Directs the VA to provide Quality Review Teams for spot audits
Establish "centers of excellence" for complex claims issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury to field targeted claims
Directs the VA to have the capability to get DOD records via electronic format by end of calendar year 2013 -- speeding up the original goal of updating records by end of 2014
VA must submit monthly reports to the Appropriations committees on the number of backlogs, the average days to complete a claim, and error rates
VA must submit quarterly reports of the number of claims personnel per regional office and corrective actions taken in response to poor performance
VA Inspector General must coordinate with DOD's Inspector General to examine the process between the departments and identify problem areas
$88 million to hire staff for the Board of Veterans Appeals
Care Close to Home:
Senator Murkowski has made access to care a cornerstone of her commitment to Alaska's veteran community, and remains concerned that extensive travel requirements -- combined with lengthy scheduling delays -- create unnecessary burdens for those who've served. In order to best address these issues, today's bill compels the VA to provide data on travel requirements for Alaskans who have had to fly within the state of Alaska or outside for medical care -- and investigates whether that care could have been provided nearby at community health centers, tribal health facilities or other nearby providers.
Related to the "Care Close to Home' priority, Senator Murkowski has long advocated for a uniquely-Alaskan policy solution to the geographic challenges facing rural veterans: a partnership with the Indian Health Service to provide rural care at Native Health Care centers. This effort finally became official last December, and today's MilCon/VA 2014 appropriations bill contains a requirement that the Veterans Administration provide a report to Congress detailing the progress being made in this partnership, as well as challenges and difficulties that need to be addressed.
"Pop-up" Veteran Affairs Centers and "Distance Counseling"
In the lower 48, when veterans live in remote locations far from a counseling center, the VA dispatches a counselor in a van to drive out to them and provide them care. This approach cannot work for Alaska's thousands of veterans off the road system, with no access to a "brick and mortar' care center. The MilCon/VA bill introduced today includes languages that requires the VA consider the benefits of temporary "pop up' counseling centers to send VA professionals to gatherings around the state -- like AFN or other events attracting large numbers of veterans. The MilCon/VA bill also requires the VA to consider making use of Internet video conference programs like Skype and Facetime to connect rural veterans who cannot be reached through a face-to-face meeting -- and report back to Congress with their findings or conclusions.
Following up on a line of questioning that Senator Murkowski directed to Secretary Shinseki in April -- pointing out that veterans are twice as likely to develop Lou Gehrig's Disease -- today the subcommittee gave credit for acknowledging this difficult reality. In today's 2014 MilCon/VA bill, the subcommittee strongly encouraged the VA to allocate research funds to life-extending tools for veterans suffering from ALS -- and report back next year on its progress.