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Hirono Continues Commitment To Improving Veterans’ Health Care In New Legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, Senator Mazie K. Hirono is introducing a package of legislation that continues her ongoing work to prioritize making sure our veterans and their families can access the benefits and care they’ve earned: 

“Each Memorial Day, we recognize the brave men and women who sacrificed for our freedom. While some of our servicemen and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice, we honor them by keeping our promise to those who are coming home,” said Senator Hirono. “Providing timely access to quality health care is one of those promises. So is removing barriers to other benefits that our veterans have earned. The bills I’m introducing today will help make concrete progress in keeping those promises.

“Over the past year, I’ve met with veterans across Hawaii and heard too many stories about the difficulty they’ve had in accessing information and benefits,” continued Senator Hirono. “The VA has made progress but still faces many challenges in restoring trust with our veterans. These bills would help fix the VA system to make sure our veterans can access the care they need by cutting red tape that prevents veterans from being reimbursed for emergency care, putting survivors benefits on a fast track  to being approved for veterans’ families, and matching up VA policies with private sector practices and allowing Emergency Medicine doctors to work a flexible and more practical schedule.”

As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Senator Hirono has worked to improve care, benefits, and services that veterans receive. In 2014, she worked to develop Congress’ legislative response to the VA health care scandal and fought to include important provisions for Hawaii in the final law, including authorizing $15.8 million for a new veterans clinic in Leeward Oahu, making it easier for VA to hire new staff in Hawaii and nationally, providing in-state tuition for veterans using the GI bill at public universities, and allowing the VA to contract with the Native Hawaiian Health Care System. Senator Hirono also chaired a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing in August 2014 on the state of VA health care in Hawaii and continues to prioritize outreach to Hawaii’s veteran community through roundtables, meetings, and other efforts.

The Veterans Emergency Health Safety Net Expansion Act of 2015 expands access to the VA emergency safety net to all VA-enrolled veterans who rely solely on the VA for their medical care by cutting red tape and eliminating the 24-month rule. Currently, the VA system creates a catch-22 for more than one million veterans who rely solely on the VA for their medical care. A veteran who receives emergency care at a non-VA facility can be reimbursed for those costs only if the veteran had also received care at a VA facility in the preceding 24 months. This creates an extreme financial hardship for veterans who experience a medical emergency. The Veterans Emergency Health Safety Net Expansion Act of 2015  fully repeals the 24-month requirement and removes a major barrier that forces veterans to choose between seeking life-saving emergency care or facing extreme financial hardship. This bill is endorsed by The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).

The Veterans’ Survivors Claims Processing Automation Act eliminates the need for survivors or spouses of deceased or totally and permanently disabled veterans to file a formal claim before the VA settles and pays claims for survivor benefits.  Right now, survivors or spouses of veterans have to file a formal claim and go through an often lengthy process in order to receive VA survivor benefits, like burial/funeral benefits or disability pensions, for veterans who are deceased or totally and permanently disabled. The Veterans’ Survivors Claims Processing Automation Act would give the VA authority to pay a survivor claim without a formal application when sufficient evidence is already on record.  The authority would allow automation of the following benefit categories: VA burial/funeral benefits, VA dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), VA Survivors Pension, and VA payment of certain accrued benefits upon death of a beneficiary to survivors. The VFW and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) have endorsed this bill. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs Emergency Medical Staffing Recruitment and Retention Act would match up VA policies with private sector practices and allow VA Medical Centers to implement flexible physician and physician assistant work schedules. Currently, the VA’s policies don’t sync up with how private sector medical professionals manage their schedules. Hospitalist and Emergency Medicine physicians specialize in the care of patients in the hospital, often needing to work irregular work schedules to accommodate the need for continuity of efficient hospital care. This bill would give the VA authority to align VA policies with the private sector, facilitating the recruitment and retention of emergency physicians and the recruitment, retention, and operation of a hospitalist physician system at VA medical centers. The VFW, DAV and American College of Emergency Physicians are supportive of this legislation.

National veterans and medical groups praised Senator Hirono’s legislation:

“The VFW supports all three of these important measures which we believe will improve access to care for veterans and timeliness of claim decisions for their survivors, and we thank Senator Hirono for her leadership in bringing them forward,” said Raymond Kelley, VFW National Legislative Director.

“Senator Hirono’s legislation will improve access to emergency care for our nation’s veteran’s by making the Veterans Health Administration more competitive with the private sector,” said Dr. Michael Gerardi, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.  “Current VHA rules do not provide enough flexibility to recruit and retain the most qualified emergency physicians.  My colleagues and I are honored about this potential opportunity to serve veterans.”