MERRIMACK — The state's two U.S. senators worked together on a provision in the $16.3 billion bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs that will allow New Hampshire veterans to seek health care at private and public facilities not run by the department.
“For too long, New Hampshire veterans have been forced to travel long distances to access VA health care, and they deserve better,” the senators said in a joint statement issued after the measure passed the U.S. Senate on a 91-3 vote Thursday night.
“The compromise bill includes a provision we fought for that will finally give New Hampshire veterans the choice of receiving care from a private provider instead of being forced to travel hours to seek care at VA facilities.”
The measure, which was also overwhelmingly passed by the House, now goes to President Obama for his signature.
The senators held a joint news conference Friday, speaking before about 50 veterans who gathered at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Merrimack. The veterans wholeheartedly welcomed the change.
“It’s fantastic,” said Judy Bell of Hudson, an Army veteran who said she suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of being raped at age 19 while on active duty at Fort Devens. Now, she said, she will be able to receive mental health counseling nearer her home, at a facility where there are no veterans and at one where the majority of patients are not men.
She asked the senators if “MST” — military sexual trauma — would be covered at the non-VA sites. Shaheen assured her that it would. Ayotte said MST and getting survivors the treatment they need are very important issues for both senators.
“We are going to make sure they get the treatment they have needed,” Ayotte assured Bell.
The provision the two Senators fought to include in the bill will mean elderly, ill New Hampshire veterans will not have to travel hours to get medical care treatment at VA hospitals in Boston or White River Junction, Vt. Once it becomes effective, expected in 90 to 120 days after the rule-making process, a veteran anywhere in the country will be able to receive care at private or public facilities if the veteran lives more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or if the VA cannot provide the requested appointment within VA wait-time goals.
Shaheen’s and Ayotte’s provision allows veterans in a state without a full-service facility, like N.H., and who live more than 20 miles from the nearest full-service VA hospital also to receive care from a non-VA provider.
The provision gives the vast majority of N.H. Veterans the option to use non-VA health care providers and potentially avoid long drives and wait times for appointments, the senators say.
The legislation also addresses accountability at the VA, giving the Secretary more authority to fire or demote senior level employees based on their performance.
The legislation comes nearly four months after it became public that Veteran Affairs employees allegedly falsified records to cover up long wait times for patients. Some veterans reportedly died while waiting for treatment.
Ayotte said the bill could never address that wrong but it was “a step forward on the journey to restoring the VA.”
The bill also requires the VA to establish goals for appointment wait times and publish wait times at each VA medical facility.
Shaheen and Ayotte, both members of the Senate Armed Service Committee, have worked to expand access to health care for the state’s veterans. Earlier this year, they announced the opening of two new health care facilities in Colebrook and Berlin in the North Country. The part-time health care clinics will help serve more than 2,500 veterans in those areas.
The provision for veterans to receive medical care from non-VA providers is funded with $10 billion and is effective for three years. Shaheen explained that it would have to be reauthorized when the money runs out and/or three years has elapsed.