Veterans could go anywhere for care under McCain bill

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WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain proposed legislation Wednesday to expand and make permanent the choice program for veterans so they could go anywhere for health care.

McCain’s bill, borne of frustration over the slow pace of improvement in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ system, would remove the current restriction that veterans can go outside the VA system if they wait more than 30 days or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

His bill also would:

• Allow veterans to go to walk-in clinics for minor illnesses. The VA would be required to contract with a national chain of clinics to provide the service.

• Expand operating hours of VA clinics and pharmacies.

• Expand telemedicine to allow VA health care providers in one state to treat veterans in other states.

The bill would encourage VA facilities to undergo a best practices peer review by some of the leading hospital networks in the country.

“This effort that we have been making, I believe, has shown some progress but the fact remains that we have a long way to go,” McCain said.

McCain said he would give VA Secretary Bob McDonald a C- grade overall, but an F for not holding people in the agency accountable in various scandals. Among those was the manipulation of scheduling records — discovered in Phoenix — that was used to hide the long waits veterans faced before getting appointments.

McCain also said no one has been held accountable for massive cost overruns in the construction of a new VA hospital in Denver.

The VA did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on McCain’s proposal.

Co-sponsors of McCain’s Care Veterans Deserve Act include seven other Republican senators.

McCain provided no cost estimate for the bill. He and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., negotiated the previous VA health care overhaul legislation in the summer of 2014. McCain noted the Office of Management and Budget estimated that legislation would cost $3.3 billion but has only cost $400 million.

McCain said he has had several meetings with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He said he expects to attract some Democratic support and hopes to pass the bill before the end of the legislative session.

McCain said his office is still handling about 500 cases involving complaints by veterans.

“The day that (total) decreases I think will be the day that we have shown some progress in caring for our veterans,” McCain said.

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