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Hirono Spoke About Bill Today In Senate Committee On Veterans’ Affairs

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Mazie K. Hirono, Jerry Moran (R-KS), Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Mark Begich (D-AK), members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, announced new legislation this week to help extend emergency care coverage for veterans.

Currently, a veteran enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system can only be reimbursed for emergency care at a non-VA facility if he or she has received treatment at the VA within the past two years. However, veterans who have recently returned from deployment or live in rural communities often can’t meet this requirement because they have not received even their first VA exam due to a delay in examination appointments at participating facilities. This bipartisan bill – endorsed by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) – would waive this pre-requisite and allow our nation’s heroes to be reimbursed for medical care at non-VA facilities.

“For Hawaii veterans in rural Oahu or the neighbor islands who live far from VA facilities, emergency care outside the VA may be their only option,” said Senator Hirono. “Just last week, I met a veteran from Waianae who had a medical emergency while waiting four months for his first appointment at VA. Veterans like him who were denied VA reimbursement would get much needed relief under this legislation. It isn’t fair to punish veterans for waiting times outside their control.”

“Veterans who have served our country with duty and honor deserve access to quality health care when they need it,” Senator Moran said. “They should not be forced to bear the burden of emergency health care costs simply because of exorbitant VA waiting times to see a doctor. As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I am committed to improving access to care for Kansas veterans. This legislation will provide veterans with the emergency care they deserve.”

“It’s unacceptable for veterans to be denied emergency health care coverage because of bureaucratic red tape caused by inefficiencies in the VA system. I’m proud to join my colleagues in supporting this commonsense legislation that will ensure that our veterans receive the benefits that they have earned,” said Senator Isakson.

“Our veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice deserve the benefits that they worked hard to earn. This bill provides a much needed fix to close a loophole preventing too many of our veterans from getting reimbursed for emergency room visits. I thank my colleagues for crossing the aisle to make sure our veterans can get the care they need,” said Senator Begich.

The Hirono-Moran-Isakson-Begich bill would give more than 144,000 veterans access to medical treatment without worrying about reimbursement. The VA asked for the statutory authority, granted in this bill, in its FY2014 budget request and has also set aside funds for the change. In addition, H.R.2216, as reported by the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 27, 2013, would cover any additional costs that the VA will incur.

Hirono spoke about the bill during today’s Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing, bringing the issue of emergency care to the attention of VA officials. VA Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Jesse noted to Hirono that the bill raised an “important point” and he would bring her concerns back to VA. Watch footage from the hearing here:

Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) also submitted the following testimony in support of Hirono's bill:

"The VFW supports this legislation which would authorize VA to reimburse veterans for emergent non-VA care who do not meet the requirement of having been seen at a VA facility in the preceding 24 months, simply because long wait times for initial patient examinations have prevented them from doing so.  The strict 24-month requirement is especially problematic for current era veterans, many of whom have never had the opportunity to be seen at VA facilities due to long appointment wait times, despite their timely, good faith efforts to make appointments following separation.  Should they experience medical emergencies during that waiting period, VA is required to deny their claims for reimbursement, unnecessarily leaving them with large medical bills through no fault of their own. VA is aware of the problem and has requested the authority to make an exception to the 24-month requirement for veterans who find themselves in this situation.  The VFW supports this request, strongly believing that under no circumstances should long appointment wait times prevent a veteran from seeking emergent, possible life-saving care at a non-VA facility, or expose that veteran to financial hardship as a result of doing so."