Union Representing VA Workers, AFGE, Backs VA Reform Bill

WASHINGTON –The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 205,000 workers at the troubled Veterans Affairs Department (VA), backs a reform bill to improve access to VA hospitals – and community health clinics, if needed – and to increase the numbers of VA doctors and nurses.
The measure, by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., could hit the Senate floor as early as mid-June.
Sanders’ measure and its endorsement by AFGE President J. David Cox, a retired VA nurse, both respond to a VA-wide scandal over lack of access by veterans to the hospital system.  Sanders’ bill is “a push to fix the long-standing problems at the root of the VA’s current woes,” Cox said.
Surveys show veterans are highly satisfied with their care at VA facilities.  The catch is getting it.  Wait times are long and some vets have died while waiting.  VA middle managers had financial incentives to cover up the long wait times, and did so.  And when AFGE members tried to blow the whistle, the managers disciplined or silenced them.
In one example of a VA-wide problem, VA El Paso hospital managers said 85 percent of vets seeking appointments for mental health care got them within the required 14 days.  But Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, whose district includes El Paso, says an Inspector General’s  report shows the average wait was 71 days and that 36 percent of the 692 vets seeking mental health care got no treatment at all.  Sanders’ bill is designed to start fixing such a situation
“In the last few weeks there has been plenty of rhetoric circulated about our veterans’ health care system, but few meaningful solutions.  By providing concrete solutions to the wait list issues and staffing shortages, this plan will ensure access to care matches the world-class service our nation’s heroes receive once they enter the VA system,” Cox added.
Cox particularly praised Sanders for advocating emergency funds to hire more VA doctors and nurses, to increase direct patient care. VA workloads increased tremendously with the flood of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  And Cox lauded Sanders’ planned commission, including rank-and-file workers, to examine VA health care access, top to bottom.
Sanders’ proposed scholarships and college loan forgiveness to medical students who, on becoming doctors and nurses, come to the VA, “is another common-sense solution to help attract and retain much needed medical professionals,” Cox said.  “We urge Congress to pass this legislation swiftly so front-line VA  employees get back to doing what they do better than anyone else – care for America’s heroes,” he concluded.
Sanders and Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the top Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and John McCain, R-Ariz., a decorated Indochina War veteran and former prisoner of war, agreed on a bipartisan VA reform bill.  The measure allots $500 million more to hire more VA doctors and nurses, would approve 26 new medical centers, would let vets who live far from hospitals go to private clinics and give the VA secretary more firing power.