The Senate's 91-3 approval of July 31 mirrored nearly unanimous approval by the House of Representatives the previous day.
The bill addresses many problems that surfaced last spring regarding veterans' access to medical care at VA facilities nationwide. It allows veterans to receive care outside the VA if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or if they need to wait longer than 30 days for an appointment.
In referring to the internal affairs that sparked the VA controversies, Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, said the reforms are overdue.
“We never in our wildest hallucinations suspected that the VA was cooking the books," he said in a published report. "We just never thought that it got that deceitful. When the whistle-blowers started to come forward in Phoenix, we took a step back, and we were like, 'Oh, really?'”
Phoenix was the first locale at which the mismanagement appeared.
Samuel Foote, a retired Phoenix VA physician who was the first to expose wait-time manipulations and delays in care, said the bill addresses the most urgent needs for increased staffing and outpatient referrals for private care.
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, urged Obama to meet with veterans-association leaders and implement further reforms. “While there are many good elements to the bill ... we are nonetheless outraged that it took the VA scandal to create this kind of urgency in Washington for our veterans,” he reportedly said in a written statement. He added that veterans should not be subject to the poor standards set by the VA and Congress.
No mismanagement has been reported at the La Jolla facility, a 336-bed center adjacent to UCSD.
In a related development, the VA San Diego Healthcare System issued a statement on its efforts to ensure the timeliness of patient appointments.
“Our priority, now more than ever,” the system's website reads, “is to ensure veterans new to our healthcare system, or new to a specialty clinic, receive an appointment as soon as possible. When scheduling, veterans are offered an appointment with a date-specific time.”
The site further says that the system is opening a community clinic in Sorrento Valley, which will initially have capacity for 4,800 and eventually 7,200 patients; adding mental health provider positions and hiring seven nurse practitioners to improve immediate access to primary care; expanding mental health clinic space at its Mission Valley location; adding additional clinic hours in the evenings and weekends for primary care, specialty care and mental health services.
The local system is also reportedly working with a private firm at its Escondido location to add primary care providers, who can reportedly see new patients within a week. The system also said it is contacting all veterans with an appointment beyond 90 days and offering an earlier appointment or arrange care with a provider in the community at VA expense.
The system recently received $11 million from the VA, to be used to further improve access to care.