Op-Ed: Richard Burr: Fixing veterans' health care

In 2014, when I was serving as the ranking member of Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. This law created the new Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans who face long waits or driving distances to see a doctor of their choice outside of the federal VA health care system. This legislation was in direct response to the disturbing revelation that many veterans who had bravely served our country and survived combat were dying as they waited for medical care from the VA.

We recognized at the time that the only way to make certain that veterans got the care they needed when they needed it was to enable veterans to see a doctor outside the VA if they were on a waitlist or lived far away from a VA facility. I was proud to help author the Veterans Choice Program, and I know that program has helped many veterans get health care.

Yet nearly two years later, veterans are still experiencing serious frustrations and delays in getting medical care and treatments. In October, a CNN reporter found that appointment wait times at the VA were not getting better, even after billions of dollars were injected into the VA health care system to hire more doctors.

More recently, Charlotte's WBTV reported that a local veteran had waited more than a year to receive a referral from the VA to see a spine specialist. This veteran was finally given a referral, but when he called to make a second appointment, he was told the doctor was no longer accepting veterans under the Choice Program. Why? Because the VA had failed to pay the doctor for seeing veterans. This is one example of thousands across the country, and it's why I introduced the Veterans Choice Improvement Act. We have to get it right for our veterans.

We can start by making the process less confusing for veterans to get care from an outside doctor. Currently, the VA allows veterans to see private doctors through a number of programs - the Choice Program is just one of them. These programs differ in substantial ways, and not all of them are permanent programs. This bureaucratic patchwork is confusing to the veteran, confusing to doctors and hospitals, and oftentimes, confusing to the VA itself. My legislation would consolidate these programs into one simple program, the Veterans Choice Program, which veterans can count on.

The Veterans Choice Improvement Act also makes sure the VA pays doctors so that veterans aren't turned away at the door. In North Carolina, some hospitals have stopped seeing veterans under the Choice Program because the VA has consistently failed to pay the bill for services rendered. My legislation solves this problem by setting strict standards for how long the VA has to pay a claim, and if the VA fails to meet it, interest begins to accrue. The legislation also requires the VA to clearly tell medical providers what information a claim must contain for quick reimbursement, and it calls on the VA establish an electronic system to process claims from outside providers.

The VA has also had significant accounting problems as more veterans have received care outside the VA. In fact, these accounting failures precipitated a funding crisis last summer that almost forced the closure of VA hospitals. To prevent future funding emergencies, the Veterans Choice Improvement Act will fund health care for the Choice Program through a dedicated account in the budget for non-VA care, and that account will be funded a year in advance.

Finally, I have heard countless stories of veterans being forced to travel long distances to get to a VA facility for minor medical issues. There is no reason why veterans in some parts of the country are driving four hours each way just to get fitted for a hearing aid when there is a private doctor down the road who could easily do the same thing. The Veterans Choice Improvement Act will alleviate this burden by allowing the VA to enter into standing agreements with local doctors and hospitals to provide such services to veterans. This just makes common sense.

Making good on the promises we made to our veterans is not a partisan issue, and it should always be above the politics of the moment. Veterans are still facing a health care crisis in this country, and the Veterans Choice Improvement Act will help veterans across America get the best health care we have to offer, without having to wait long or drive far. Regardless of whether a veteran lives in an urban center or a rural town, this legislation will help them. Congress should pass this bill, and the president should sign it.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, is the former ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

This op-ed appeared in the Fayetteville Observer.