Originally published July 28 on IdahoCapitalSun.com.U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough forcefully denounced the U.S. Senate’s unexpected decision to kill a bill that would have provided health care and benefits to 3.5 million veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits while stationed around the world.
In a visit to the Boise VA Medical Center on Thursday, McDonough said killing the legislation, known as the PACT Act, will “inexplicably” delay necessary health care to veterans who have faced 30 years of war and exposure to toxic particulates from burn pits, largely in the Middle East.
“They’ve now waited long enough to get access to care and access to benefits,” McDonough said during a press conference. “So I’d urge the Senate to get going and to get this done.”
The secretary said the Department of Veterans Affairs has added staff to ensure it is ready for the increased claims made by veterans under the new bill.
“We’re getting ready to do this,” he said. “I just urge the Senate to get on with it. Our veterans have waited long enough.”
The bill, from Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. John Tester and Kansas Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, has been bogged down for nearly two months as U.S. lawmakers debated whether to bring amendments to the floor and how exactly to fix a minor part of the bill that stalled the process in the House, according to previous States Newsroom reporting.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 55-42 to advance the bill toward final passage, but that did not meet the 60-vote threshold required by Senate filibuster rules and the legislation stalled, States Newsroom reported.
There were 41 Republicans, including Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, who voted against the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, changed his yes vote to a no vote before the final tally, a procedural move that will allow him to bring the bill back at a later date.
The bill was voted down after retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, raised issues with the funding mechanism of the bill, asking for the legislation to be paid by discretionary funds, which can change from year to year, rather than a mandatory funding mechanism, like that which pays for programs like Social Security.
“The PACT Act as written includes a budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category,” Toomey said in a press release Wednesday. “This provision is completely unnecessary to achieve the PACT Act’s stated goal of expanding health care and other benefits for veterans.”
McDonough said he was given no notice from the senators who voted against the bill about their concerns.
Re-launch of records-keeping system
McDonough said there is no set timeline for when the VA will continue to roll out its new electronic records-keeping system after its launch was postponed at the Boise VA and across the country. Military Times has reported the launch will be delayed at least until 2023.
The postponement comes after the VA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report detailing how the new system has caused harm to nearly 150 veterans who seek care through the VA in the Pacific Northwest, including at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center.
“From facility go-live in October 2020 through June 2021, the new (Electronic Health Record system) failed to deliver more than 11,000 orders for requested clinical services,” the report said.
For example, the report outlined how a health care provider requested a follow-up psychiatric care order for a homeless patient identified as a suicide risk.
“The new (Electronic Health Records system) sent the order to the unknown (electronic) queue,” the report states. “The patient was not scheduled for follow-up care and later contacted the Veterans Crisis Line reporting a razor in hand and a plan to kill himself. The patient was psychiatrically hospitalized.”
Similar issues with the system and its rollout were reported at facilities in Walla Walla, Washington, and Columbus, Ohio.
Idaho lawmakers had concerns
Idaho’s congressional delegation – Crapo, Risch and U.S. Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson – wrote a letter to McDonough in April expressing deep concern with the system and its rollout.
“Although the intended goal of the (Electronic Health Record system’s) implementation is to provide a streamlined, seamless process for veterans receiving care, the rollout in the Mann-Grandstaff Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center resulted in confusion, frustration and alarming situations for many veterans and their medical providers,” the letter reads, in part.
The Congressmen called upon McDonough to answer questions about the rollout, including asking how the VA intends to provide additional training to health care providers who will use the system.
“Furthermore, the July 2021 report states that after all training was complete and after more than two months of (Electronic Health Record) use at the Mann-Grandstaff VAMC, 95 percent of VAMC staff reported they were unable to use at least one of four core functions of the new health records system,” they wrote. “This decreased provider productivity and damaged employee morale.”
McDonough said Thursday that those concerns are valid and that providers and health care workers in the VA system should feel confident and comfortable with the new system.
“One of the reasons I wanted to come here … was I wanted to make sure that they felt heard about their views on readiness of the platform — (and) the readiness of our governance structures — to roll that out in a way that advances, first and foremost, veteran outcomes,” he said.
As McDonough toured the Boise VA’s facilities on Thursday, he said he asked questions and learned from health care workers on the ground about what will help ease some of the issues facing the new records system.
“Our leaders here at the Boise VA gave us some good ideas on things that we have to really sand down and really improve to ensure that when we roll it out, it’s ready for a big facility like this,” he said.
McDonough is visiting Idaho as part of the annual Western Governors’ Association meeting, held in Coeur d’Alene this week.