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Bill would help rural veterans access VA services

Jun. 21, 2013 - 10:44AM   |  
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A key Senate committee is concerned that veterans living in rural areas may not be getting the full benefit of improvements in veterans programs.

At the urging of Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee is ordering an assessment of Veterans Affairs Department-operated outpatient clinics in rural areas to determine, among other things, if they fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for access by the disabled.

The committee also adopted a Udall-sponsored amendment to the 2014 veterans’ funding bill warning that veterans in rural areas may not be able to file the fully electronic benefits claims VA wants because of limited Internet access.

The two Udall amendments are part of the report accompanying the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act passed by the committee Thursday. The bill includes $147.8 billion for VA in 2014 plus $55.6 billion in advance appropriations for medical care for 2015.

In addition to Udall’s amendments, the committee asks VA to “more aggressively” focus on providing health care in rural areas by contracting with private providers and making agreements with public hospitals and clinics.

It also prods VA to provide grants to state veterans agencies and veterans service organizations to provide transportation for veterans in highly rural areas. A grant program was created three years ago, but rules were never adopted and no payments have been made, the committee says.

Udall’s amendments, passed by voice vote and with no debate, are aimed at making sure veterans in rural areas receive the same assistance as other veterans.

Community-based outpatient clinics, known as CBOCs, are the means VA uses to provide health care to veterans who don’t live close to a veterans’ hospital — a widely praised addition to departmental services.

But the amendment says many of the clinics need updating, including expansions to accommodate increases in the patient population, and improvements aimed at providing more privacy and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The committee asks for a full assessment of CBOCs located in rural areas to come up with a list of improvements needed to comply with medical and health-related legal requirements.

Electronic claims filing is VA’s answer to its slow claims process. Under an expanding program, VA encourages veterans to file claims with full supporting documents online in order to reduce processing times.

But electronic filing, especially if it includes sending copies of documents, requires high-speed Internet access, which Udall says some veterans do not have. His amendment urges VA to work with state, local and tribal governments “to find ways to accommodate veterans in rural areas who want to submit fully developed claims but do not have adequate access to the Internet.”

One idea, the committee suggests, is working with local libraries, often the only provider of free Internet access in rural areas.

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