WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — In the face of what he called a dysfunctional U.S. Congress, Sen. Bernard Sanders is touting a Veterans Affairs bill that is expected to be signed into law today.
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 will allocate billions of dollars in an effort to improve access for vets seeking medical care.
In an appearance Wednesday at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, Sanders discussed what he’s learned during his year and a half as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“The cost of war is much deeper and more significant, I think, than most people understand,” Sanders said. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost of those wars was not just the 6,700 men and women who died. It was not just the many who came home without legs or without arms or without eyesight or hearing. It was the impact of all of that on families, on wives, on kids.”
The bill includes $10 billion to improve medical access for veterans seeking treatment. The changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system include giving veterans the option of seeing a private practitioner if they have not been treated at a VA medical facility in a “reasonable” amount of time.
The amount of time considered reasonable will be decided by the department; the legislation suggests a 30-day wait, but that figure is subject to change at the discretion of the VA.
The bill will also allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility to visit a private practitioner, a move that is expected to have an effect in rural Western states such as Montana and Wyoming, but less of an effect in Vermont.
In addition to the medical center in White River Junction, the department has facilities in Bennington, Brattleboro, Colchester, Newport and Rutland.
These efforts come on the heels of months of hearings and investigation that found some veterans waiting months for medical attention and some VA facilities — such as the one in Phoenix — falsifying information to make it appear patients were being seen within two weeks.
Recognizing the VA medical system is understaffed — in some cases, short on space — the bill also includes money to hire more doctors and nurses and build 27 facilities, none of which will be in Vermont.
The bill also makes it easier to fire high-level VA officials who falsify information.
Sanders noted the bipartisan support for the bill, from his co-sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to the near-unanimous support it received in both chambers of Congress.
“In a dysfunctional U.S. Congress, where very little is getting done, I’m proud to say our legislation passed the House with an overwhelming vote, as was the case of the Senate,” Sanders said.
Brenda Cruikshank, state commander for the Department of Vermont Veterans of Foreign Wars, expressed cautious optimism about the bill.
“I think it’s a great thing for veterans, both well-needed and deserved,” said the Northfield resident, who retired in 1998 as an active-duty nurse in the Army. “I’d like to think things will get better, here and across the country.”
josh.ogorman @rutlandherald.comMORE IN Vermont News
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