November 19, 2013

VETERANS COMMITTEE PASSES HIRONO’S BIPARTISAN MEASURE TO EXTEND EMERGENCY CARE COVERAGE FOR VETERANS

Long VA Waiting Times Unfairly Penalize Vets From Rural Communities, Those Who Have Recently Returned From Overseas

Washington, D.C. – The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs today passed a measure authored by Senator Mazie K. Hirono to help extend emergency care coverage for veterans. Hirono’s bipartisan measure, co-sponsored by Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Mark Begich (D-AK), was included as part of the committee’s omnibus bill, S. 1581, the Veterans Programs Improvements Act.

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. 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.

“I commend my colleagues on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for advancing this important legislation. 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. “There’s a veteran from Waianae who had a medical emergency and had to wait four months for his first appointment at VA. He ultimately went to another health care provider but was denied VA reimbursement. This legislation would help him and others like him. It isn’t fair to punish veterans for waiting times outside their control and I look forward to the full Senate considering this important legislation.”

The Hirono-Moran-Isakson-Begich bill would give more than 144,000 veterans access to medical treatment without fear that they would be denied reimbursement. The VA has 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 a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing last month, 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: http://youtu.be/-PU1cHLl2cU.

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

“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.”

The committee also passed by voice vote Hirono’s amendment to authorize the award of grants and contracts under S. 1262, the Veterans Conservation Corps Act, to the governments of the U.S. Territories and American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-serving organizations. The bill, which also passed the committee today, would establish a federal veterans conservation corps to employ veterans in conservation, resource management, and historic preservation projects on public lands and maintenance and improvement projects for cemeteries, and as disaster relief personnel.