U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) hailed a bipartisan agreement to provide veterans across the country a quicker route to access the care they need in the short term, while providing the resources for the VA to build its capacity to deliver quality care to veterans for the long-term.
"Ensuring our veterans have timely access to medical care must be priority number one," said Smith, former chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "I am eager to comb through the final text but am pleased that we have come to an agreement that will allow veterans to see non-VA medical professionals over the next two years, while shoring up the VA to address future staffing priorities. This is a break though."
The VA provides quality care to the millions of veterans who are treated in their facilities but clearly remains unable to fulfill its mission to do so in a timely manner. Accordingly, the agreement will allow veterans who cannot obtain an appointment, or live more than 40 miles from a facility, to use non-VA medical facilities while providing funding and a blueprint for the VA to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical providers.
The total package is expected to include $25 billion for these provisions while also:
modernizing the VA's information technology capacity to move their records keeping and scheduling systems into the 21st Century;
expanding educational opportunities for both veterans to receive instate tuition at any school regardless of their residency and for surviving spouses to further their education through the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship, and;
expeditiously addressing the disability claims backlog and the appeals process for vets who are waiting to have their cases reviewed.
The bill will also provide the VA with needed authority to institute accountability throughout the Department by including provisions for the firing of senior VA officials responsible for falsified records and secret waitlists. Smith recently voted for the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act (HR 4031) which included similar provisions.
"The state of affairs at the VA is more than just a resource issue," said Smith. "We need to eliminate the culture that has crept in--where VA officials not only kept secret waitlists for veterans in dire need of care, but covered up the corruption, negligence and incompetence."
Important for Fourth District veterans is the authorization of a new Veterans' Administration's Community-Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Ocean County.
"Having spearheaded the efforts to locate VA clinics in each county in our Congressional District--Hamilton in Mercer, Tinton Falls in Monmouth and Brick in Ocean--I have seen first-hand how properly located facilities can provide convenient, cost-effective primary care for millions of veterans," Smith said. "But anyone who has recently visited the CBOC in Brick, knows it needs more space and repair."
Smith said he expects the Ocean County VA clinic project to cost about a $7 million.
The facility is now handling three times as many appointments as it was intended to serve when Smith first introduced legislation back in 1985 to establish the clinic to meet the needs of the growing veteran's community in and around Ocean County.
The legislation will allow the VA to lease a new facility to address the growing demand in Ocean County and ensure that they can meet the caseload.
These new authorities--combined with a new VA Secretary, Robert McDonald, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate--provides an opportunity for the VA to modernize and provide quality care to the millions of veterans and their families.
"While he certainly has his work cut out for him, if Mr. McDonald's confirmation is successful, he has the opportunity to implement these reforms and real accountability to serve those who so selflessly served us," Smith said. "We expect nothing less."