This week the House Appropriations Committee marked up and approved the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill, advancing the annual legislation funding veterans services and military installations for consideration by the full House.
While funding is the primary purpose, appropriations bills also offer an opportunity to effect needed policy changes. In this case, my colleagues and I on the Appropriations Committee sought to bring to light and repair some of the problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ (VA) unwieldy Choice Program. With the VA reform and accountability law enacted in late 2014, Congress set up and funded the Choice Program to allow veterans who live far away from VA facilities or experience especially long waits to access health care from outside providers. However, implementation of Choice has been anything but smooth. I hear from veterans all the time who have tried to take advantage of this new option, only to face more delays, red tape and runaround.
There are many reasons for the troubles with Choice, but funding should not be one of them. In fact, the $73.5 billion this appropriations bill directs toward the VA is the Department’s highest level of discretionary funding ever. Despite historic funding levels, the VA has had trouble following through on reimbursements to outside health providers. This problem has existed in Central Alabama for some time. As you may know, I am working to build a Veterans Community Health Network in Alabama in which community hospitals and other health providers will partner with the VA to deliver care for veterans in remote areas or those who need specialty care. I believe this hybrid system is the future of veterans care and can be a model for other areas. One of the primary hurdles we have faced is the complicated and tiresome reimbursement process.
Hospitals, clinics and other health providers in Alabama want to be a part of the solution to improving veterans’ access to healthcare. However, they can’t be expected to do it for free. No veteran should be denied access to care because the VA hasn’t paid its bills.
That’s why I worked to include language in the Committee Report calling attention to the problem and directing the VA to (1) comply with federal “prompt pay” requirements, and (2) account to Congress all the outstanding reimbursements owed to outside providers. My goal here is to prompt VA officials to settle outstanding debts and fix the reimbursement process so that providers can have full confidence in partnering with the VA.
In Alabama, communication between the VA and local providers has definitely improved, which is a good first step. My office will continue to work through these issues on the local level so that our Veterans Community Health Network can be a success. As we do, I intend to use my influence in Congress to demand the VA pay its debts.
• • •
Martha Roby represents Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama with her husband, Riley and their two children.