May 16, 2017 Volume 23, No. 5
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Bi-Partisan Accountability Bill Introduced
On May 11, 2017, Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.” The legislation was also co-sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). PVA offered our strong support for this critical piece of legislation. The principle goal of the legislation is to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to terminate bad employees faster while also strengthening protections for whistleblowers. The bill streamlines the VA’s process for reviewing and firing employees who engage in misconduct or perform poorly without sacrificing their due process rights.
The “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act” has three major provisions:
1. Increase accountability within the VA by:
a. Giving the VA Secretary the authority to expedite the removal, demotion or suspension of employees at the VA based on performance or misconduct.
b. Shortening the process to remove employees at all levels of the department when evidence proves that they have engaged in misconduct or are performing poorly.
c. Incentivizing managers to address poor performance and misconduct among employees by including these issues in the annual performance plan.
d. Prohibiting bonuses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing.
e. Prohibiting relocation expenses for employees who abuse the system.
2. Protect whistleblowers by:
a. Codifying the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the VA and mandating that the head of the office be selected by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, giving Congress more oversight over the department.
b. Requiring the VA to evaluate supervisors based on their handling of whistleblowers.
c. Requiring the VA to provide department-wide training regarding whistleblower complaints once a year.
3. Strengthen VA leadership by:
a. Giving the VA Secretary additional flexibility in hiring and firing senior executives.
b. Removing bureaucratic barriers to holding senior executive accountable by expediting executive appeals and sending them directly to the VA Secretary.
c. Reducing benefits for employees who are disciplined or removed for misconduct.
Along with PVA, this legislation is supported by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Project on Government Oversight, AMVETS, and Got Your 6.
PVA Executive Director Sherman Gillums offered the following statement in support of the bill:
Paralyzed Veterans of America has long called for measures that bring greater accountability and protects those employees who have the courage to call out fraud, waste, and abuse in the Department of Veterans Affairs. We firmly believe that the culture of a company, organization, or federal agency is shaped by the worst behaviors its leader is willing to tolerate. The “VA Accountability & Whistleblower Protection Act” is the first major step toward reshaping behavior in VA by tolerating bad behavior and poor performance no more. Our veterans deserve it; and so do the hardworking public servants of VA who are tired of being overshadowed by the performance of substandard managers and employees.
The focus will now turn to the House VA Committee to bring companion legislation forward. During the last Congress, the House and Senate VA Committees were unable to come to a compromise on accountability legislation; however, House VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) and Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN) have both offered support for the Senate bill.
House Subcommittee Holds Roundtable on Caregiver Support Programs
On April 27, 2017, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health held a roundtable to examine how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can improve the Caregiver Support Program, available to veterans of all eras, and the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Support Program, limited to veterans who were catastrophically injured after September 11, 2001. Members of the subcommittee and their staffs engaged representatives from the veterans’ service organization (VSO) community, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
At the forefront of the discussion was the date of injury eligibility requirement of the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program. Members of Congress generally support expanding the program, but are deeply hesitant to approving this necessary change due to cost considerations. Some veterans groups support the idea of delaying expansion until the current program is made essentially perfect. This is a position that PVA strongly opposes. Representatives of the VA welcome the program’s expansion but expressed concern Congress would not provide them the support and resources needed to meet such an overwhelming need. PVA, DAV, VFW, and the American Legion continue to advocate expansion without hesitation.
Our position remains clear—it is unjust to provide critically needed support services to one group of veterans, and deny it to another, for no other reason than cost. PVA will continue to advocate for the Caregiver Support program to be properly resourced and the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Support Program to be opened to those who would otherwise be eligible, and are in critical need.
HVAC Pushes Forward with Appeals Modernization in the 115th Congress
On May 2, 2017, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing on H.R. 2288, the “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017.” The bill’s introduction follows on the heels of the recent Congressional round table hosted by the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Mike Bost (R-IL). He and Ranking Member Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) are the original co-sponsors of the legislation.
The bill is an evolution from efforts throughout last year to present Congress with a new framework for processing disability claims and appeals. Much of the criticism last year dealt with the lack of a plan for implementation, a comprehensive risk assessment, and an understanding of what resources would be needed. There must be enough resources to ensure that VA does not leave behind veterans already who are already waiting while it starts a new program. PVA supports the new framework, and we also support this legislation’s requirements for extensive reporting by VA as it moves forward with implementation.
It is notable that the House and Senate have been working closely on this legislation, and shortly after the hearing it was announced that the Senate would be introducing a companion version of the House bill that has bipartisan and bicameral support.
PVA’s full statement for the record can be viewed at: http://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=105902
VA Adopts New Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will adopt new accessibility standards issued by the U.S. Access Board to ensure access to medical diagnostic equipment (MDE) at its health care facilities. Under an agreement governing acquisition, the VA will require that new equipment meet the MDE standards which were published in January of this year. The VA’s health care network, the largest integrated health care system in the U.S., includes 152 medical centers, nearly 800 community-based outpatient clinics, and over 125 nursing home care units.
Access to MDE has been problematic for people with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids. The Board’s standards provide design criteria for examination tables and chairs, including those used for dental or optical exams, weight scales, radiological equipment, mammography equipment and other equipment used for diagnostic purposes by health professionals.
The MDE standards, as issued by the Board, are not mandatory unless adopted by a federal agency. The VA’s use of these standards will help it meet responsibilities under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which requires access to federally funded programs and services. Other entities, including health care providers and state and local governments, can voluntarily adopt and apply the standards as well.
For further information on the MDE standards, visit the Board’s website or contact Earlene Sesker at email@example.com, (202) 272-0022 (v), or (202) 272-0091 (TTY). Questions about the new VA acquisition policy should be directed to Laurence Meyer at Laurence.Meyer@va.gov.
House Passes American Health Care Act
On May 4, 2017, the U. S. House of Representatives passed H. R. 1628, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), by a vote of 217 to 213. The bill would significantly modify the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. Twenty Republicans joined all of the Democrats in the House in voting against the measure. The bill is not a complete repeal of the ACA, as has been promised by Republicans for seven years, but deals only with those parts of the ACA with budgetary implications in order for the Senate to pass it with a simple majority vote, a process none as reconciliation.
The AHCA reduces funding for subsidies provided under the ACA to make health insurance coverage purchased through the health exchanges more affordable and tilts the benefits of those subsidies toward younger people. However, it also creates tax credits that would be available to people to purchase health plans outside the exchanges. The measure eliminates a number of taxes, including those on health insurers, under the ACA that were designed to pay for its provisions. Instead of a mandate that individuals carry health insurance, H.R. 1628 would allow insurers to charge those with coverage gaps longer than 63 days a one-year, 30 percent surcharge on their insurance premiums. In addition, the House bill cuts over $800 billion from Medicaid over ten years and, in 2020, would end the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid through which some 11 million Americans have gained health care coverage. The bill also eliminates funding for several public health programs aimed at preventing bioterrorism and disease outbreaks.
The AHCA would make a number of changes to the types of health insurance plans that would be available by changing the rules governing protections for those with pre-existing conditions and by eliminating requirements that health plans cover certain benefits. States would be allowed to seek a waiver from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) so that insurers could charge higher premiums to those with pre-existing conditions. If HHS does not respond to a state’s request within 60 days, those changes would automatically go into effect. As part of a waiver application, states would have to set up a high risk insurance pool or design a subsidy program of their own for residents with pre-existing conditions who might be priced out of the insurance market as a result of the waiver.
In a letter to the House, PVA expressed concern about a number of the provisions in H.R. 1628 that could have harmful effects on veterans and people with disabilities. Under the bill’s changes to financing of Medicaid, the federal government would no longer share in the costs of providing health care services and community services beyond a capped amount. This would eliminate the enhanced federal match for the Community First Choice Option under Medicaid that provides attendant care services in the community. Thanks to this program, many poor veterans with serious non-service connected disabilities have been able to move from nursing homes into their communities. Data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that the Medicaid expansion that would be eliminated by the bill has helped thousands of veterans and their caregivers.
By allowing states to seek waivers that would permit insurers to charge higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions, people with disabilities and expensive health conditions could again be exposed to significantly higher medical costs. The waivers would also relieve states of the ACA’s requirement that certain essential health benefits must be provided, including crucial services for people with disabilities such as prescription drugs, rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices, preventative and wellness services and chronic disease management. In combination, these changes would very likely make it difficult for people with pre-existing conditions to find affordable plans that cover basic health care services.
For veterans and PVA members in particular, the AHCA continues several problematic policies of the ACA as well as troubling new provisions that could affect the ability of many veterans and their family members to afford health insurance in the private market. Those provisions include:
• Retains coverage of adults up to age 26 on parents’ health policies but continues to exclude CHAMPVA beneficiaries—dependents of the most catastrophically disabled veterans—from this benefit.
• Fails to remove the prohibition on enrollment into the VA health care system for Priority Group 8 veterans, thus denying these veterans access to a viable option for health care.
• Offers tax credits meant to make health insurance affordable to anyone except those eligible for a host of other federal health programs, including those “eligible” for coverage under Title 38 health care programs. This would prevent many veterans who may be “eligible for” but not enrolled in the VA health care system from accessing these tax credits intended to help people buy insurance.
The Senate has begun to discuss parameters of a health care reform bill but is not expected to use H.R. 1628 as the basis for its efforts. Over the coming months, PVA plans to reach out to the Senate committee leadership involved in developing its legislation to ensure that veterans and people with disabilities are not disadvantaged in the process.