May 6, 2004

Program Cuts Red Tape for WIAs
A new Army program will help severely disabled soldiers and their families cut through red tape so they can tap into services available to them through military channels and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee said he hopes the Disabled Soldier Support System (DS3) will serve as a pilot for the other military services. In the meantime, he said the Army program will help all severely disabled servicemembers, regardless of the uniform they wear. "We won't turn anybody down," he said. Rather than introducing a new service, DS3 is a clearing house for a host of services already available through the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Army officials explained. This gives disabled soldiers a single starting point for help ith their financial, administrative, medical, vocational and other needs and benefits. For more information visit or call (800) 833-6622 toll free.

May 10, 2004

Veterans groups back healthcare system proposal
By David McGlinchey


The federal government's recently announced plan to modernize and consolidate its Veterans Affairs health care system has received strong backing from veterans groups, but a mixed reaction from local leaders whose communities will be affected by closed hospitals.

The Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services plan, known as CARES, was announced Friday by Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi. It calls for VA hospitals to be shut down in Pittsburgh, Pa., Brecksville, Ohio, and Biloxi, Miss. Under the CARES planning, VA officials will ask Congress for billions of dollars to build new hospitals in Florida and Nevada, along with 156 outpatient clinics.

Veterans groups supported the plan, and praised Principi for promising that no facility would be closed until its replacement was fully operational. The plan is "an unprecedented initiative that moves the VA health care system into the 21st century," said Edward Banas, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "The VFW fully understands that the closing or consolidation of some facilities may inconvenience some veterans ... but the VA has offered reassurances that no veteran will be denied or have their health care delayed during the transition."

Lawmakers in the districts affected by the closings were more circumspect about the decision.

"I can be supportive of this plan as long as the VA ensures that all of the new and expanded facilities are up and running before the shutdown of the Highland Drive [Pittsburgh] facility, which is scheduled for 2007," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. "I plan to hold the administration accountable for its commitment to all of the components of the planned transition."

Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was more critical. He said he is "not convinced" Principi will keep his promise that no veteran will experience a lag in health care.

"President Bush and Secretary Principi have chosen to close this hospital and two others in addition to the cuts in veterans' health care and education in the past two years," Brown said. "They have broken their promises to veterans in the past; a lot of veterans don't trust them."

Brown also said he was concerned that mentally ill veterans would be moved from a facility in a bucolic setting to a replacement in inner-city Cleveland.

Even veterans groups that backed Principi's plan said they were supporting the effort based on the promise of uninterrupted health care. David Autry, deputy national communications director for the Disabled American Veterans, said that "overall, it's a good plan."

The CARES plan "addresses one of the goals that we've all had, I think, which is to bring health care to where veterans live," according to Autry. "[Principi] gave everybody his assurance that there would not be any realignment or closures unless and until" replacement facilities are available.

"We're trusting that is what he will actually do."

May 14, 2004 

Plan to recruit nurses to VA jobs wins backing 
By Lori Sharn, CongressDaily


A House Veterans Affairs panel Thursday approved a plan to test whether professional recruiters and advertisers can lure more nurses to VA jobs.

The Subcommittee on Health also approved more flexible work schedules to attract and keep nurses. The new alternate work schedules would include work weeks of three 12-hour days, seven 10-hour days over two weeks, and full-time for nine months with three months off.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Nurse Recruitment and Retention Act of 2004 (H.R. 4231) is the latest bill over many years aimed at addressing a nationwide nursing shortage and its impact on VA facilities. A substitute amendment was passed by a unanimous voice vote.

The legislation directs the VA secretary to conduct a pilot program using proven private-sector recruitment practices in a region or section of the country particularly affected by the nursing shortage. The practices to be reviewed should include employer branding, Internet technologies and the use of recruitment, advertising and communication agencies.

The bill also includes a controversial provision that bars the VA from requiring registered nurses to have baccalaureate degrees in nursing in order to be hired. The VA says it has no such requirement, but at a May 6 hearing, witnesses said registered nurses without baccalaureate degrees are discouraged from applying for VA jobs.

Subcommittee Chairman Rob Simmons, R-Conn., said the panel wrestled with the issue and made a decision. He said it's possible the degree issue will come up again in the full committee markup next week.

"At a time when there's an urgent need to get more people into nursing, and a shortage of nurses at the VA, why set this arbitrary academic standard which serves as a barrier to admission? That doesn't make any sense to us," Simmons said.

The bill also includes payments to assist state veterans' homes in recruiting and retaining nurses.

The top job at the Veterans Health Administration would no longer need to be a doctor of medicine, under the legislation. Any qualified professional in the health care field could be undersecretary for health.

The legislation does not change how the how the undersecretary for health is chosen, however. The process now requires a formal search commission and can take up to 18 months. At the May 6 hearing, veterans' service organizations objected to a draft bill changing the commission to advisory status.

May 21, 2004

Some 90,000 Medicare-eligible military beneficiaries are not eligible for Tricare for Life and Tricare Senior Pharmacy services because they are not enrolled in Medicare Part B. The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 provides for a special, no-penalty enrollment period for them. The special period runs through Dec. 31, 2004, but the act did not specify a start date. According to the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), Medicare must first publish guidelines in the Federal Register and provide a 60-day comment period. This would drag the open enrollment start to September or October. When it does kick off, the Center
for Medicare and Medicaid Services plans to automatically enroll every Medicare-eligible beneficiary who is not currently enrolled in Part B, stated a MOAA official. Beneficiaries will receive notifications of enrollment offering them the chance to decline if they so choose.