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Senators introduce new veterans' health care bill

Jun. 13, 2014 - 08:22AM   |  
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HONOLULU — A new bill has been introduced in Congress that aims to offer relief to veterans that have had to pay for emergency health services.

Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii, and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, of Kansas, co-introduced the bill Thursday.

The proposal would eliminate a rule that prevents veterans from being reimbursed for emergency care if they haven’t been seen in a VA center for 24 months.

“This bill eliminates red tape that prevents veterans from being reimbursed for emergency care,” Hirono said in a statement. “Veterans needing care shouldn’t be penalized because they live in rural communities or face outrageous wait times for appointments at VA medical facilities.”

The bill, called the Veterans Emergency Health Safety Net Expansion Act, would impact an estimated 144,000 veterans. It also would prevent insurance companies from denying or limiting reimbursements based on the fact that the VA is not an in-network provider.

“Veterans should not be forced to bear the burden of emergency health care costs because of the dysfunctional, bureaucratic VA system,” Moran said in a statement.

Under current law, veterans who have not been seen at a VA hospital in 24 months have to pay out of pocket if they receive emergency health care, and they are not reimbursed by the VA. This bill would shift that cost burden to the VA. The VA, in turn, would collect an estimated $98 million in 2015, or $1.1 billion over 10 years, from insurers who would no longer be able to list VA hospitals as out-of-network.

Hirono and Moran are members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. That committee had passed a similar measure last year, but it was part of a larger bill that ultimately failed, said Katie Niederee, spokeswoman for Moran.

The Veterans Affairs Department released an audit this week showing that more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. An additional 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them. Hawaii had the longest wait for new patients in the nation, with a reported 145-day delay to see a primary care physician.

“The horror stories that our veterans are dealing with are inexcusable,” said Robert DeVinck, commander of the American Legion Post 8 on Maui. DeVinck does not seek care at the VA hospital because he can afford do go elsewhere, he said.

Dennis Zatecka, an Army veteran and a commander at the American Legion on Oahu, used to volunteer for the VA hospital driving patients to and from appointment.

“The guys that I’ve talked with, one from American Samoa and others from the outer islands, I never heard them say to me that they had to wait a long time,” Zatecka said.

The bill on emergency care was introduced after a different Senate bill was approved Wednesday that would make it easier for veterans who faced long delays to receive VA-paid treatment from local doctors. Moran did not vote for that bill because he had been traveling to attend his father’s funeral in Kansas and was unable to return to Washington in time for the vote, Niederee said.

“Had I been in Washington, I would have joined my colleagues in voting in favor of this bipartisan plan to help make certain veterans receive the access to quality, timely care they deserve,” said Moran, who co-sponsored that legislation, in a statement.

Hirono and Moran’s bill addressing emergency care for veterans was introduced separately from the measure passed Wednesday, because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who co-introduced Wednesday’s legislation, would not allow amendments to the proposal, said Sabrina Siddiqui, spokeswoman for Hirono. They did that to ensure it would pass as quickly as possible, Siddiqui said.

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