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Delegation Says Many Veterans Issues Unresolved by New Legislation

Mal Leary

President Barack Obama has signed into law a package of reforms that will add about $17 billion to the annual budget of the Veterans Affairs. But the measure also seeks more accountability and provides more options to veterans to get care. Maine’s congressional delegation says a lot more needs to be done to improve the V-A.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, is the ranking minority member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and helped broker the deal between the House and Senate that led to passage of the reform legislation.

“There is still a lot to be done and so no one should think that because Congress passed the conference report that that solves the problem in the Department," Michaud says. "It clearly does not solve the problem.”

Michaud says there are serious issues yet to be resolved, such as the inability of the Defense Department and the Veterans Affairs to electronically share medical records, a disability claims backlog that has left some veterans waiting months to find out the status of their claim and the vexing problem of suicides by veterans. The VA estimates that every day, 22 veterans take their own lives — that’s more than 8,000 a year.

That is just completely unacceptable, says Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

"One issue that I believe would make a real difference is to have a drug take-back program at all VA facilities," she says.

Collins says often veterans have complicated health problems that require strong pain medications as well as post-traumatic stress issues that are treated with powerful psychotropic drugs. She says often it takes several attempts to get the right drug at the right dose and veterans are left with a medicine cabinet full of drugs that can be misused by themselves or others. Collins says she has included language in the current budget proposal requiring the VA to establish take-back programs, but the measure has yet to reach the full Senate. Sen. Angus King, an independent, says he is concerned that medical records are not being shared electronically.

“I mean, it’s in this day and age it’s inexcusable and it is one thing that would make our system more efficient, more cost-effective and safer,” King says.

King says the lack of an integrated electronic medical records system is a major reason for the disability claims backlog. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, says a major stumbling block to solving the remaining problems at the VA is funding. She says too many in Congress are quick to fund new weapons systems but not care for veterans.

“You can’t expect to fix all the problems that our veterans have been facing, the backlog, the shortage of doctors, unless you are willing to put a little funding in there," Pingree says. "Again, we have a lot of work to do to finish our funding for this year.”

It's unclear whether Congress can act on all of the remaining veteran’s issues when they are only expected to be in session for three weeks after the August recess. Michaud says the House Veterans Affairs Committee plans to report out legislation dealing with the unmet needs in September.

“We have been working with the backlog issue and the access issue both the mental health side and on the benefits claims side and there is a lot to be done,” Michaud says.

But even if the committees in the House and Senate get their work done, it is doubtful that the full Congress can act before leaving Washington to campaign. Michaud believes it’s likely that any final action on the remaining VA issues will have to wait for the expected post-election session of Congress in November.