January , 2019

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Kirk Bill Increases Vets Care by $3.4 Billion

Requires New Oversight on Spending, New Protections for Whistleblowers, New IVF Coverage for Veterans

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies (MilCon-VA), applauded the committee’s unanimous passage of the bipartisan fiscal year (FY) 2017 appropriations bill, which funds the VA at record levels, protects whistleblowers who expose patient abuse, increases oversight of spending at the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General (VA OIG), boosts health services for female veterans, improves screening of medical personnel, prevents the overprescription of opioids by VA doctors, and increases funding to reduce veteran homelessness. With bipartisan support, the committee included new coverage for IVF treatment for veterans with service-related injuries. The bill now heads to the Senate floor.

“This bill funds the VA at record levels – $3.4 billion more than last year with new protections for those who protect our vets – confronts the overprescribing of opioids and includes new oversight of spending at the VA so tax dollars are spent more effectively,” Senator Kirk said. “The bill does not allow modification of Guantanamo Bay or construction of facilities to house detainees in the U.S., which prevents terrorists from moving to U.S. soil.”

The FY2017 MilCon-VA bill funds the VA at record levels with $75.1 billion in discretionary spending – $3.4 billion more than FY2016. Senator Kirk’s bill also advances funds for medical care and veterans’ benefits for FY2018.

The bill also protects our national security by providing $7.93 billion total for Department of Defense (DOD) military construction projects, which includes funding to house, train and equip military personnel, provide housing to military families and fund critical military base projects. Additionally, it prevents the closure of Guantanamo Bay as well as the construction, renovation or expansion of any facility in the U.S. that could potentially be used to house hardened terrorist detainees from Guantanamo.

Protects Those Who Protect Our Veterans

Retaliation against VA whistleblowers continues to persist at hospitals and clinics nationwide, including at Hines VA in Illinois. Senator Kirk’s MilCon-VA bill mirrors the language in the bill he introduced last year with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the VA Patient Protection Act, by:

  • Increasing penalties for those who retaliate against whistleblowers;
  • Establishing a central whistleblower office to investigate all whistleblower claims; and
  • Creating a formal process for whistleblowers to file claims within the VA.

Hold IG Accountable for Cover-Ups of Veteran Wait Time Manipulation

Despite requirements in current law that the VA Office of the Inspector General (VA OIG) release reports in a timely manner, the agency is exploiting a loophole to withhold dozens of reports related to criminal investigations at VA facilities across the nation. Reports documenting scheduling manipulations by VA officials in at least seven states – including Illinois – were hidden from Congress and taxpayers for nearly a year.

Senator Kirk’s legislation clarifies that VA OIG must publish all reports within three days of completion, including detailed information regarding the disciplinary actions and plans to implement changes for those who were found manipulating scheduling practices. His bill also increases the VA OIG staff by 100 employees so these tasks can be completed in a timely manner.

Reduces Overprescription of Opioids

The FY2017 MilCon-VA bill addresses the overprescription of opioids by requiring the VA to report prescriptions to state prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), just as other doctors and hospitals do. It would also expand access to lifesaving naloxone and enhance education about its use to stop heroin overdose.

Between 2001 and 2009, pain reliever prescriptions nationwide quadrupled to nearly 3.8 million, and studies show that almost half of veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and/or Operation Iraqi Freedom, and entered Veterans Affairs (VA) health care from 2005 through 2008, received at least one pain-related diagnosis. 

Boosts Funding for Veterans Crisis Line

In the wake of failures of the 24-hour Veterans Crisis Line (VCL), the bill adds $8.7 million above the president’s request for the VCL to ensure call center technologies are up to date and staff are properly trained in crisis management. It also fully funds the president’s request to add 140 new employees. The additional resources will ensure veterans like Tom Young, an Illinois father of two who reached out for help and took his own life before receiving a call back, are never again ignored or sent to voicemail when they need help. 

Increases Women’s Access to Health Services

This bill directs the VA to allow women veterans to receive in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments, as is the case with active duty service members under the DOD.

Increases Funding to Address Rising Veteran Homelessness Rates

Veteran homelessness rates in Illinois are increasing annually, and the lack of mental health services and employment opportunities for those returning home from the battlefield are contributing to this growing problem. This bill increases funding for homelessness grant programs by adding $20 million to Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) and $10 million to the Grant and Per Diem program. 

Improves Screening of VA Health Professionals

Senator Kirk wrote to Secretary McDonald last fall about the hiring of Dr. John Sturman, a VA doctor who worked at the pain management clinic at the VA Illiana Health Care System in Danville, Ill., while he was under investigation for allegedly over-prescribing narcotics in Indiana. He faces 24 years in prison on three counts of reckless homicide and 16 counts of issuing invalid prescription drugs.

Senator Kirk’s bill increases scrutiny for hiring health professionals by requiring increased reporting to state medical boards and requiring the VA to thoroughly check with medical boards before hiring medical personnel to care for our veterans.

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