- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2015

Congress says more still needs to be done to reform the Veterans Affairs Department nearly a year after the waiting list scandal was exposed, and despite a bill last summer designed to correct the bureaucratic flaws that led to veterans getting poor care.

The House voted earlier this week to let the VA secretary take back bonuses from senior executives who are later found to have manipulated wait-time data, which was a key ingredient of last year’s scandal.

And lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would help end the VA disability claims backlog, a problem officials say should be solved by the end of this year despite more than 200,000 current claims that have been pending more than 125 days.

“After these brave men and women put their life on the line for us, the least we can do is ensure they are getting the benefits they have earned in a timely manner,” said Rep. Timothy Walz, Minnesota Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “I recognize this problem was not created, nor will it be solved, overnight, but we can and must do better.”

The backlog bill would allow private doctors to perform a disability exam. Under current law, veterans must go to a VA facility for this appointment.

Letting vets see local doctors would cut down on long wait times at VA hospitals and save veterans who live in rural areas a lengthy trip to the nearest VA facility, the sponsors said.

The bill would also work to increase accountability by requiring the VA to report on the most common reasons that claims from local doctors are denied.

Meanwhile the bonus bill, which cleared the House by voice vote, goes to the Senate, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers this week introduced a similar measure.

“It’s outrageous that VA employees who deliberately manipulated waitlists received bonus pay at taxpayers’ expense,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican. “They must be held fully accountable for their misconduct — starting with repaying the funds they wrongly received.”

The VA could either require employees to pay back the bonuses by garnering their pay or requiring it in a lump sum.

The Congressional Budget Office said the bill would affect only a small number of VA executives. Of the $400 million given out each year in VA bonuses, only about $4 million goes to senior staff who could be forced to repay the bonus if bad conduct was discovered.

Last year, Congress passed a bill to reform the VA after a whistleblower alleged that veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists. Investigations found systemic problems across the country of VA employees manipulating data to make wait times appear shorter and secure large bonuses.

To help improve wait time issues, the bill established the Choice Card program, which lets vets seek care from a private doctor if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment.

Veterans have complained that the 40-mile distance is measured “as the crow flies,” meaning veterans often have to drive much farther on roads. The 40-mile rule also applies to the nearest VA facility, not the nearest one that offers the care the veteran needs. A VA facility may be within the 40-mile radius, for example, but it may not offer a specific service that the patient needs, like mental health care.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee, promised to soften the 40 mile rule to open up care to more veterans.

“We are committed in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to make the 40-mile rule work, make the Veterans Choice bill work,” he said at a hearing Wednesday.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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