House passes Tester bill to revamp troubled VA health care program

by Missoula Current, Martin Kidston

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives this week passed a legislative package that would overhaul the health care options for patients with the Department of Veterans Affairs and address the agency’s workforce shortage.

The measure, cosponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, would also scrap the VA’s troubled Choice program and allow a VA patient and his or her doctor to choose where it makes the most sense to receive care.

The legislation passed the House on Wednesday by a 347-70 vote.

“Our bipartisan bill delivers a better health care experience for veterans and cuts the bureaucracy that has plagued the system,” Tester said. “This legislation is proof that when Congress works together, we can get good things done for our nation.”

If passed by the Senate, the Caring for Our Veterans Act would replace the VA’s seven community care programs with a streamlined system and help address workforce shortages within the VA.

Under the legislation, a veteran and his or her VA doctor would also decide where it makes the most sense to receive care. In addition, it would extend VA caregiver benefits and assistance to veterans of all eras.

Tester, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, worked with Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, to attach the Caring for Our Veterans Act to the VA MISSION Act, which passed the House.

“The reforms are some of the most significant changes proposed to date to improve the VA’s current health-care delivery system to help provide veterans with more choice and fewer barriers to care,” Isakson said.

Congress passed the Choice program in 2014 and hailed it as a new tool that enabled veterans to receive care outside the VA under certain circumstances, such as long wait times or for those who live long distances from the nearest clinic.

But the program has since come under fire and is set to run out of funding by the end of the month.

The VA MISSION Act would bridge that funding to keep the program running for another year until it’s blended with new VA care programs that expand the options veterans have in accessing outside care.