Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa speaks to the crowd at the 2015 Ag Summit on Saturday, March 7, 2015. The Ag Summit allowed elected officials and public policy leaders to have a discussion with the public on issues relating to Iowa and American economy with a highlight on agriculture. (The Daily Iowan/Lexi Brunk)

Bipartisan VA bill passes

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By Matthew Jack

matthew-jack@uiowa.edu

U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., announced on Monday that a bipartisan bill to streamline the process for health-care appointments for veterans, the Faster Care for Veterans Act, had passed both houses of Congress and is heading to the president’s desk.

The bill would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to create a web-based program to allow veterans to schedule and confirm health-care appointments for VA medical services.

“The long waiting times our veterans face are simply unacceptable,” Ernst, a veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, said in a statement. “I am pleased that my colleagues in both the Senate and the House have recognized the urgency in giving our veterans faster, hassle-free access to service.”

In June 2014, a VA internal audit found more than 120,000 veterans had waited at least 90 days for a health-care appointment or had not received one at all.

The bill orders “an 18-month pilot program that would allow veterans to self-schedule, confirm, and modify outpatient and specialty-care appointments in real time through the internet … 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” the statement said. Additionally, veterans who cancel their appointments would immediately open that time slot to others on the service.

“State-of-the art technology that makes it easier to schedule appointments already exists and is being used in other hospital systems,” said Klobuchar in the statement. “Our veterans have earned the right to use the same technology to schedule their medical appointments without unnecessary red tape and delays.”

In February 2015, Richard Miles, a 41-year-old veteran from Des Moines, was found frozen in a public park after taking a toxic number of sleeping pills.

Brandon Ketchum, 33, who served in the U.S. Marines and the Army National Guard, died by suicide at his home in Bettendorf in July, followed by Curtis Gearhart in November, a 32-year-old Johnston native who served in the U.S. Army.

In all cases, the victims sought out medical care from a VA hospital but were denied or delayed. Their deaths sparked initiatives from Iowa legislators to reform the VA system.

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, wrote regarding Ketchum’s death that “this tragedy, combined with the fact that over 20 veterans commit suicide every day, means that something must be done address this crisis.”

Both Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ernst joined a bipartisan effort to urge VA Secretary Robert McDonald to comply with the Emergency Care Fairness Act, which directed the VA to “cover veterans with private health insurance when that insurance doesn’t cover the full amount of non-VA emergency care.”

“Mr. Gearhard, Mr. Ketchum, Mr. Miles, and all of our veterans we’ve tragically lost to suicide deserved better from the VA,” Ernst said in a letter to Michael Missal, the VA inspector general. “I speak for all Iowans when I say that our veterans deserve better.”