It took six weeks of wrangling in Congress, but it ended on August 7 when President Obama signed the $16.3 billion VA reform bill into law during a stump-style ceremony at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia.
More properly named the “Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014”, the VA reform bill is the legislative response to the agency’s wait times scandal, which deprived tens of thousands of veterans timely access to health care and treatment at its nationwide network of hospitals and clinics.
VA employees and administrators not only systematically placed veteran patients on wait lists for care, but they attempted to cover up their activities during the investigation once the practice became public knowledge, reports by both the VA’s inspector general and the White House said.
Included in the bill is greater latitude for newly confirmed VA Secretary Robert McDonald to more easily dismiss and discipline employees who have been found to have committed wrongdoings that adversely affected veterans, a point Obama made during his Fort Belvoir speech. The VA secretary can make the decision to fire an employee, who would have seven days to appeal, with a 21-day time period for a final decision.
“If you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired. Period,” Obama said, and added that the work has not ended with the bill’s signing. “Implementing this law will take time, and making sure this bill works requires focus from all of us.”
The bill’s provisions include:
• $5 billion for the VA to hire more doctors, nurses and other health professional
• $1.3 billion for new VA outpatient clinics in the U.S. and Puerto Rico (you can see the list here)
• $10 billion as a set-aside for the VA to compensate private doctors to treat veterans who are unable to get appointments at VA hospitals or clinics, or veterans who live at least 40 miles away
• an allowance for all returning veterans and eligible dependents to attend public colleges or universities at in-state tuition rates under the Post-9/11 GI Bill
One less popular aspect of the scandal remains as part of the new bill — annual bonuses. Investigations found that employees who engaged in wrongdoing still receiving year-end bonuses for meeting the bogus scheduling and care targets. This bill cuts $40 million from the pool of bonus money available to the VA in 2013, down to $360 million.