Bill Would Improve Health Care for Rural Veterans

 U.S. SENATE News:

Bill would improve access to care by expanding transportation options, recruiting and retaining doctors and prioritizing improvements at rural clinics

WASHINGTON–U.S. Senators Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced a bill to address some of the biggest barriers to health care for veterans in rural communities.
More than six million veterans, including a third of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, live in rural communities. But as many as half of those veterans may be going without care from the VA. Rural veterans too often struggle to access quality care because it isn’t available locally. For some, traveling to and from an appointment can take all day. Veterans who can’t drive must rely on neighbors or volunteers to get to appointments, and many simply go without adequate care.
Udall and Heller’s “Rural Veterans Improvement Act” takes a four-pronged approach to improve and help veterans access care by:

  • Enhancing mental health care options by allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to work with nonVA mental health providers in rural communities.
  • Building on the VA’s transportation program to ensure more veterans living in rural areas have a way to get to doctors’ appointments.
  • Creating programs and incentives to attract and retain doctors and nurses to rural VA health care facilities.
  • Requiring the VA to conduct a full assessment of its community-based outpatient clinics (CBOCs) to determine what improvements are needed and prioritize those projects.

“I’ve met with veterans across New Mexico, some of whom have to drive four hours or more to get to a VA hospital. Many rural veterans are also frustrated with the lack of health care options and the frequent turnover among staff at their local clinics. Rural veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from TBI and PTSD also often don’t have adequate access to mental health care in their communities,” Udall said. “I’m pleased to join Senator Heller in introducing this bipartisan bill to help address these challenges and enable veterans to get better quality and access to care where and when they need it.”
“Our brave men and women have sacrificed a great deal to safeguard our freedoms, and it is imperative that Congress meets their needs, no matter where they live. By guaranteeing availability of mental health professionals, increasing access to efficient transportation options and enhancing our rural VA facilities, we can ensure rural veterans receive the same level of care that veterans in urban areas receive. It is an honor to partner with Senator Udall in a bipartisan effort to provide veterans with the benefits they earned,” Heller said.

More detail on the bill’s provisions follows:

Mental Health Care Enhancement: Too many veterans are suffering from PTSD, TBI, and other service connected mental health issues without access to the care that they deserve. Veterans who are not able to access adequate mental health care are also at a higher risk of committing suicide. Many veterans do not respond to traditional forms of therapy for their service connected disability and options for alternative and complementary medicine are not widely available to veterans living in rural and highly rural areas. This bill address this gap in care by:

  • Making fee-for-service available to veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI or other service connected mental health issues under certain conditions where treatment at a clinic serving rural veterans is not available or where treatment options such as complementary or alternative medicine, including traditional Native American healing methods are not available.

Improving Transportation in Rural Areas: For a veteran living in rural areas, getting to appointments at larger VHA medical facilities for more than basic care can be a major logistical challenge. Older veterans who are unable to travel without support may put off needed treatments because of the distance. The bill attempts to address this issue by building on the current grant program to support veterans in highly rural areas. It:

  • Authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a grant program to provide options for innovative transportation to veterans in rural areas.
  • Does not require matching funds for grants up to $100,000 max.

Retaining and Training Health Care Professionals: Rural and highly rural veterans struggle with high turnover among the doctors and staff at rural clinics. This bill addresses the issue of staff retention by:

  • Creating a pilot program that would offer financial incentives to reduce turnover among rural clinic staff.
  • Working with university medical programs to create curriculum for rural health care training to better prepare doctors and nurses for work in rural communities.
  • Streamlining the hiring of military medical professionals into the Veterans Health Care system.  

Rural Veterans Affairs Facilities Improvement: To help prioritize repairs and expansions, the bill would require a full assessment of VA CBOCs. With tight budgets, this will help save money and improve care for vets.

The bill also requires a report to Congress on the feasibility and advisability of expanding Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers or Polytrauma Network sites, which treat victims of multiple traumatic injuries, such as serious head injuries and burns.