Colorado senators pressure VA to improve veteran health care
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Visitors stroll through a long, glass-walled corridor that connects a dozen buildings at the new Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the hospital July 21, 2018. (Dan Elliott/AP)

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WASHINGTON • Colorado’s U.S. senators are demanding that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs take action to reduce wait times at the agency’s health care facilities in the state after Congress held a hearing on medical treatment for veterans.

Senators Cory Gardner, a Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Democrat, asked in a letter for a report on how the VA will more quickly assist veterans at the agency’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System facilities, which includes the new Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora.

“The troubling November 2018 [wait time] numbers demonstrate that the VA needs to prioritize solutions for Colorado veterans,” the senators wrote to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie.

He spent part of the afternoon Wednesday being grilled by a joint committee of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees.

The lawmakers wanted an update on his progress in implementing the MISSION Act, which is a program Congress approved in June to give veterans greater access to private sector health care.

Rather than being restricted to treatment only at Veterans Administration facilities, the MISSION Act expands authority for private health care facilities to be reimbursed for serving veterans.

The MISSION Act was a response to complaints by veterans of long wait times and inadequate care at VA hospitals. Witnesses told Congress in previous hearings that some veterans died as they waited for treatment of serious illnesses and injuries. Part of the blame fell on VA medical facilities in Colorado.

“As MISSION is implemented, we request a report on how the VA intends to use existing authorities, as well as the new flexibility and tools provided in the MISSION Act, to expeditiously fix issues with wait times across ECHCS,” Gardner and Bennet said in their letter. The MISSION Act gave the VA a year to develop new rules for veterans to receive government-funded health care. Lawmakers at the hearing Wednesday asked Wilkie for clarification on what they could expect from the VA’s regulations. Several of them expressed concern the VA would broaden veteran access to private care too much, possibly dramatically driving up costs reimbursed by taxpayers. About 30 percent of veterans are treated by private physicians now, the Veterans Administration reports.

“The Mission Act, we passed it with the best of intentions, but it could be a train wreck, too,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Jon Tester, D-Montana, told Wilkie during the hearing. “It is in your lap.”

Wilkie said the MISSION Act program could increase patients’ access to outside doctors’ treatment but still keep the Veterans Administration as the “central node” of veteran health care.

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