Legislative Update

by Glenn Minney

Medical Appointment Scheduling Software

 

As a result of several meetings with the Veterans Service Organization (VSO) community regarding the scheduling systems of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has announced plans to modernize this system.

The present system was placed online in 1985 and has gone through several patches, repairs, and updates, all of which were aimed at repairing discrepancies in a system that is 30 years old. Between 1985 and 2014, VA installed more than 600 patches.

Prior to Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Glenn Minney stands next to BVA wreath near Tomb of the Unknowns.
Prior to Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Glenn Minney stands next to BVA wreath near Tomb of the Unknowns.

On November 21, 2014, requests for proposals were posted to vendors for a commercial off-the-shelf scheduling system. The new system will focus on improving access to care for veterans and will eliminate opportunities to create waiting lists or falsify medical appointment records. Such lists and false appointment records were discovered earlier this year in an inspection performed by the VA Office of the Inspector General at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

The award of the contract for this new system is planned for the end of the second quarter of 2015. Once a contract has been awarded, VA will complete the deployment of the new system by 2017 with rollouts occurring every six months.

508 Compliance

 

 

In recent months, Ed Eckroth and I have attended meetings and participated in discussions with VA Central Office regarding Section 508 compliance. VA is focusing its website accessibility efforts on the most frequently visited pages and has made some progress in ensuring that 508 compliance requirements are met.

Since November 2013, VA has also improved My HealtheVet, the portal that provides access to personal health care information. The accessibility rate has reportedly improved from 16 percent of the information to 95 percent.

The goal of VHA and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) is to have all VA websites and forms 100 percent accessible. VA currently offers nearly 20 tools to implement and test website accessibility. The tools include various automated and production tools as well as assistive technology.

VA has, in the past few months, increased its 508 employee staff and its 508 civilian contractor staff to ensure that all compliance measures are met. Although 100 percent compliance has not yet been achieved, we are pleased that VA has enlisted the help of BVA to review and scan the webpages for accessibility.

VA Office of Information and Technology

 

VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OI&T) provides all of the tools and support VA needs to serve the veteran community.

OI&T employs nationwide more than 8,000 persons. Fewer than 50 percent of these persons are veterans. There are approximately 5,400 Developers and Development Support Personnel, 600 Information Security Professionals, and 25 Senior Executives or Senior Leaders. In Fiscal Year 2014, VA’s OI&T budget was $3.9 billion. These funds were used for infrastructure, sustainment, development, information security, pay, and administration.

The top five priorities of VA OI&T are protection of information, quality customer care, delivery of information technology products on time, accurate reporting of operational metrics, and management of financial resources.

Beneficiary Travel: H.R. 1284 and S. 633

 

Since assuming the position of BVA’s Director of Government Relations earlier this year, I have spent countless hours on Capitol Hill educating the members of Congress on the benefits of amending Title 38 of the United States Code regarding Beneficiary Travel.

Congressman Mark Amodei (R-NV-2) and Bob and Patricia Mower at convention President’s Reception on August 18. Amodei offered a warm welcome to Northern Nevada. He later became a co-sponsor of H.R. 1284.
Congressman Mark Amodei (R-NV-2) and Bob and Patricia Mower at convention President’s Reception on August 18. Amodei offered a warm welcome to Northern Nevada. He later became a co-sponsor of H.R. 1284.

At the present time, H.R. 1284 in the House has a total of 20 co-sponsors with six of the 20 signing on to the bill on a single day (November 12, 2014). H.R. 1284 is a bi-partisan piece of legislation and is supported in the House by many Democrats and a single Republican.

The Senate companion bill, S. 633, was introduced by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) on March 21, 2013 and has only eight co-sponsors, six Democrats and two Republicans. The Democrat co-sponsors are Max Baucus (D-MT), Mark Begich (D-AK), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) while Dean Heller (R-NV) and John Boozman (R-AR) have signed on from the Republican side. The Beneficiary Travel bill was discussed on the House Floor in May 2013, March 2014, and again in May 2014.

Unfortunately, neither bill was brought to the House or Senate Floor for mark-up. The contention on both sides of the aisle was that there was no way to pay for the bill. At the beginning of November, I asked BVA members to write to members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees to stress the importance of the bills from the membership’s point of view. I would like to express my thanks to the seven members out of the approximately 11,000 active BVA members who wrote letters to the Committees.

Although BVA was attempting to get Beneficiary Travel added to the Lame Duck Appropriations Omnibus Bill, we have been notified that neither party is willing to add Beneficiary Travel to that legislation. Once again, as the 114th Congress is sworn in on one of the first days of 2015, we will start over with new sponsors and new language in an attempt to once again get Title 38 of the U.S. Code amended.

Elections

 

As most of our Bulletin readers are aware, the November midterm elections were eventful. The Republican Party won control of the Senate while maintaining control of the House of Representatives.

On the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Ranking Member Mike Michaud (D-ME-1) resigned his seat. The new Ranking Member is Corrine Brown (D-FL-5). This move puts both the Chairman of the Committee, Jeff Miller (R-FL-1), and the House Veterans Affairs Ranking Member from Florida. The Florida Regional Group may well have closer access to those who have the greatest influence on veterans’ issues, at least on the House side.

Access to Care

 

The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (VACAA) goes a long way toward enabling VA to meet the demand for veterans health care in the short-term, with improved authority, funding, and other tools. VA has thus far put considerable focus and attention on ensuring that the law is implemented seamlessly, without confusion, and without creating hardships for veterans. This temporary measure to improve access will improve capacity within the VA system to better serve those who rely on VA health care.

From May 15 to September 30, 2014, VA completed more than 19 million veteran appointments in its facilities and authorized almost 1.1 million referrals for veterans to receive care in the private sector and other non-VA health facilities. This was a 46.6 percent increase over the same period in 2013. It was all done under existing programs prior to the passage of VACAA and sets the stage for strengthening existing partnerships between VA and the private sector.

VA has signed contracts with two private health care companies, TriWest Healthcare Alliance and Health Net Federal Services, LLC, to help the Department administer the Veterans Choice Program under VACAA. The Choice Program is a new, temporary benefit allowing some veterans to receive health care in their communities rather than waiting for a VA appointment or traveling to a VA facility. It does not affect existing VA health care or any other VA benefit being received by veterans. VA began implementing this benefit on November 5 as required by law. A call center is now operational to answer questions and verify individual eligibility for this program.

As part of the new program, VA is issuing a Veterans Choice Card to every veteran who is potentially eligible for the new, temporary health benefit. The Choice Card allows veterans to receive care outside of VA when they qualify for the new program based on the distance of their residence from a VA care facility, or when wait times for VA health care exceed the standards established in the law. The Choice Card does not replace the identification card veterans already use to access other VA benefits. Therefore, please do not throw away the identification card.

The Choice Card will be issued in three phases. The first group of Choice Cards, along with a letter explaining eligibility for this program, is currently being sent to veterans who may live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

The next group of Choice Cards and letters will be sent shortly thereafter to veterans who have currently been waiting for an appointment longer than 30 days from their preferred date or the date determined to be medically necessary by their physician.

The final group of Choice Cards and letters will be sent out during December and January to the remainder of all veterans enrolled in VA health care who may be eligible for the Choice Program in the future.

NAEVR Support Recognized

 

BVA continues to collaborate with the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR) in advocating for increased funding for vision research. The relationship is a most important and valuable one as we earnestly seek support for the Vision Trauma Research Program within Defense Appropriations.

NAEVR includes information and photos from events in which we are involved in nearly every issue of their quarterly newsletter, Contributor Report. We also appreciate NAEVR’s sponsorship of Dr. Greg Hageman’s keynote scientific speech at our most recent convention. Dr. Hageman, Executive Director of the University of Utah Moran Eye Center for Translational Medicine, met with BVA leadership and focused his remarks on recent research in Advanced Macular Degeneration.

We appreciate the extra-mile efforts of NAEVR Executive Director Jim Jorkasky to make this relationship an enjoyable and successful one. In addition to making us known within NAEVR, Jim accompanies us on visits to Congressional offices that are of interest to NAEVR and is frequently present at hearings at which we have been invited to testify or make statements for the record.