The biggest chunk of that change, $10 billion, would pay for a “choice provision” to allow veterans to use any local Medicare-approved doctor should they live farther than 40 miles from a VA facility or should their appointment date be more than 30 days away from the time they call.
The provision comes in reaction to news reports of long wait times at VA facilities and employees doctoring records to make it appear they were doing work they were not.
“It’s been a huge scandal and basically a moral failing of the VA, so this is a tough bill on the VA,” explained U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “But they deserve being treated with tough love, I guess is the best way to say it,” he said. “Our veterans deserve the promise of being able to receive the health care they were promised.”
The other $7 billion in the bill will pay to build 27 VA facilities around the country. It also includes $6.4 million to relocate the current VA facility in Austell in south Cobb County up to an unspecified site in north Cobb, obviously more convenient for Cherokee veterans. It then will offer primary care, mental health care, dental care, physical therapy, operational therapy and other services and should be open within two years. Not only that, it will be much, much bigger: 64,000 square feet, as opposed to the current 8,000 square-foot facility. Why north Cobb?
“Because of (Cobb’s) veteran population and because of the pressure that’s already on the Clairmont facility (in Atlanta) and the Rome facility,” Isakson said. Georgia is home to 774,000 veterans, not surprising when one remembers Southerners have always tended to represent a disproportionately large share of this country’s fighting forces.
Among those applauding the move is retired Marine Col. Mike Boyce of east Cobb.
“First of all, the Austell clinic has a really great reputation for taking care of its vets using the medical facility there. So I think that’s important to get that out first. They’ve done a great job, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that,” he said.
“The second thing is, while it’s nice to have that kind of money to modify or put in a new clinic, that clinic is three to five years away. And that doesn’t help the immediate requirement to take care of the veterans that are waiting anywhere from two months to six months to get a medical appointment.”
And he is especially pleased about the money in the bill that will allow veterans to seek “out of network” treatment from non-VA doctors.
“As soon as the VA can implement that, it will have an immediate impact on these veterans. Much more so than a clinic, which is in the long run.”
All told, the bill is a big step in the right direction in terms of how this country treats its military veterans — although that’s not to say everything will now be hunky-dory.
“It’s never an issue of shortage of funding. (Former VA) Secretary (Eric) Shinseki and the Congress have done a great job of funding the VA over the last five to seven years,” Boyce said. “But even in spite of that, look what’s happened. So, there’s some good things about this, and there’s some things that need to be watched.”