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Veterans Groups: Making VA Reform Work Is Real Test

By Cathy Burke   |   Tuesday, 05 Aug 2014 05:09 PM

Passage of a bill reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs is beginning to look like the easy part, veterans groups say, adding that what may be "pretty tough" is meeting looming deadlines to ensure the new law's key element – a private health care option – is working.

Congress passed a $16.3 billion measure last month – and President Barack Obama will sign it later this week – devoting $10 billion over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for qualifying vets who can't get timely appointments at VA hospitals or clinics or who live more than 40 miles from one of them.

The first big test will be whether VA officials can meet a three-month deadline for printing Veterans Choice Cards vets use to to seek out private care, analysts told the Washington Times. 

"We don't know if the current contract holder [for VA identification cards] will be able to supply that new choice card [or] if they’ll have to put a new [request for proposal] out for a new card, a new contract," Ray Kelley, the national legislative director at Veterans of Foreign Wars told the Times. "Getting that within 90 days might be pretty tough."

The cards aren't the only deadline: the new bill allows for multiple assessments, including a six-month report on VA staffing levels, and an early assessment of the private care option, the Times noted.

Louis Celli, legislative director at the American Legion, told the Times the VA has struggled to keep track of medical records when vets get care at a private facility, forcing patients to sometimes pay out of pocket to get the records themselves.

"We recognize that’s going to be a challenge for them but also recognize it’s going to be critically important to maintain that continuity of care," he said.

Dan Caldwell, issues and legislative campaign manager at Concerned Veterans for America, told the Times he worries some VA staff will try to sabotage the reforms.

"The VA wants to preserve the status quo — they just want more money to do it," he said.

"They don’t want to see the way they operate fundamentally reformed."

But in a statement, the VA vowed to see the law through.

"The department’s focus and priority is on timely and effective implementation of this highly complex piece of legislation," it said in a statement. "VA is fully reviewing the legislation and, as this process continues, VA will work with other departments, Congress, veterans service organizations and stakeholders to ensure that provisions are implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible."

The reform came in response to reports of ailing vets dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and cover-ups of the delays at several of the VA's 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics – and includes $5 billion for more VA doctors, nurses and medical staff, and $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA clinics.

The new law also makes it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior VA executives for negligence or poor performance.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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