Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said the money appropriated by the bill will be used in two ways: $10 billion will be used on a “choice provision,” which will allow veterans to choose to go to a local, Medicare-approved doctor if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or if their appointment date is more than 30 days away from the time they call; and $7 billion will be spent on 27 new VA facilities to be built around the country.
The VA has come under fire during the last few months over a scandal involving long wait times for veterans to receive care from VA facilities and employees allegedly doctoring records to “make it look like they were doing the job when they really weren’t doing the job,” Isakson said.
“It’s been a huge scandal and basically a moral failing of the VA, so this is a tough bill on the VA. 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.”
According to a long-range construction plan submitted by the VA to Congress, the money would be used to relocate the existing VA facility in Austell on Mesa Valley Way to an unspecified site the VA hopes to lease in northern Cobb County. The plan also states services provided by the new facility will include primary care, mental health care, dental care, physical therapy and operational therapy, among others.
Because Georgia is home to about 774,000 veterans, Isakson said the need for the new health care center is apparent.
“Cobb County was designated because of its veteran population and because of the pressure that’s already on the Clairmont facility (in Atlanta) and the Rome facility.”
Isakson said the new center will be 64,000 square feet, eight times larger than the current 8,000-square-foot facility. The location hasn’t yet been determined, however, because the VA cannot begin the process until they receive authorization to do so, which is what the bill contains, he added.
New facilities are also planned for Chattanooga and Charleston, according to the VA construction plan.
All of the new facilities, including Cobb County’s, will be complete within two years, Isakson said.
The Senate and House both passed VA reform bills within the last month; Isakson was part of a group of congressmen tasked with working out the differences between the bills, called a conference committee.
“I was on the conference committee representing the Senate,” he said. “The Senate bill was a $17 billion bill. The House bill was a $25 billion bill. And we were able to get the bill back down to $17 billion.”
Isakson said the combined bill came out of the committee Monday night, and he hopes it will be put up for a vote in both chambers today. After approval by the Senate and the House, the bill will be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature; as soon as it’s signed, Isakson said, the bill becomes a law and the funds will be available to the VA and, most importantly, to the veterans served by the VA.
Mike Boyce, a retired U.S. Marine and veteran advocate, said the veterans he has talked to have nothing but good things to say about the Austell facility and the immediate needs of veterans should come first.
“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.”
The $10 billion fund to allow veterans the option to see a local doctor is the most important part of the bill, Boyce said.
“As soon as the VA can implement that, that will have an immediate impact on these veterans. Much more so than a clinic, which is in the long run.
“I’m pleased to see that they have provisions in there to allow them to get some immediate relief,” Boyce said.
Isakson described how the money for the choice provision will be used.
“It’s a special fund that we set up within the VA that doesn’t have a termination date — it’s until expended so we can get some experience on how much it’s actually going to cost. And so when we appropriate it next year, we’ll have an exact number to appropriate, rather than a guess.”
While Boyce was encouraged by Congress’ movement on the issue, he is still skeptical.
“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. 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.”