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Rebecca Farley

Director, Policy & Advocacy, National Council for Behavioral Health

Congressional Negotiators Strike Deal on Veterans Health Bill

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Tuesday, committee leaders in the House and Senate announced they had struck a compromise on the Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare bill, allowing the stalled bill to resume moving toward passage. The approximately $17 billion agreement addresses VA physician and medical staff hiring; provides for physical infrastructure improvements; expands upon the VA’s ability to contract with external providers for services; and addresses recent scandals related to long waiting lists and botched care at VA facilities.

Of note for behavioral healthcare providers working with veterans, the compromise bill establishes a $10 billion “Veterans Choice Fund” to allow for the provision of VA-funded care by certain types of non-VA facilities. These include Medicare providers, Federally Qualified Health Centers, Defense Department medical facilities, and facilities run by the Indian Health Service. The bill requires the VA to enter into agreements with these external providers to ensure that veterans who face long wait times or live too far from a VA facility will be able to receive timely care in their communities.

The bill also extends for an additional two years an existing pilot program in five “highly rural” Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) that allows patients to receive care from non-VA providers. The National Council is disappointed that a similar existing pilot project to allow veterans access to care at community behavioral health organizations was not similarly extended.

Additionally, the bill includes $5 billion for hiring of new physicians and medical staff at VA facilities, as well as carrying out infrastructure improvements. Responding to recent news about cover-ups of long wait times and inadequate care at VA facilities, it also makes it easier for the Secretary to fire or demote VA staff accused of mismanagement.