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Tillis joins seven others in sponsoring veterans choice bill

SALISBURY — A group of Republican U.S. senators, including one from North Carolina, introduced a bill on Wednesday that aims to expand health care flexibility for veterans.

Called the Care Veterans Deserve Act, the bill would allow any veteran enrolled in the VA health care system to visit a private clinic without pre-authorization. Currently, veterans must meet certain conditions before participating in the VA’s choice program. The bill also would require the VA to extend its pharmacy hours to Saturday, Sunday, federal holidays and until 8 p.m. on weekdays. The provision aims to imitate services offered by retail pharmacies.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, drafted the bill. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, is among the eight senators who sponsored the bill.

Tillis says the bill would “put the ultimate power in the hands of the veteran.” Currently, veterans must live at least 40 miles away from a VA facility or face one of several travel burdens under the current Veterans Choice Program.

“The Care Veterans Deserve Act will make it easier for the brave men and women who have served our nation to have access to timely and reliable health care services, regardless of where they live,” Tillis said in a news release. “The legislation also continues efforts to apply the private sector’s best practices to the VA system, which will cut down on waste and inefficiency and ultimately help deliver higher quality care for our veterans.”

The bill comes nearly two years after the Department of Veterans Affairs was first scrutinized for slow wait times. In a news release, McCain said major progress has been made to reform the VA, but “much more needs to be done to tear down bureaucratic hurdles that are denying veterans the flexible, quality care they have earned and deserve.”

Facilities under the authority of the Salisbury VA rank slightly below average, according data posted in March by the Department of Veterans Affairs website.

The W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center, for example, completed 94.97 percent of appointments within 30 days, according to the latest data. The entire Salisbury VA system, which includes facilities in Kernersville and north Charlotte, completed 95.2 percent of appointments within 30 days. The national average for the same period was 96.46 percent.

“We have a long way to go to reform the VA, but this legislation offers important short- and long-term solutions to ensure our veterans receive the care they deserve now and well into the future,” McCain said in the news release.

To help improve accessibility, the Care Veterans Deserve Act would require the VA to contract with a national chain of walk-in clinics and ensure clinics notify the VA of services veterans receive to ensure patient health records are up to date.

A news release states the bill would also enable qualified, community health care providers to offer volunteer services to veterans on nights and weekends.

Last year, Tillis toured VA facilities in North Carolina and drafted a list of suggestions for improvement. Two of his recommendations made in 2015 — enhancing patients’ ability to seek care at private providers and extending hours — are included in the Care Veterans Deserve Act.

Other senators named as bill sponsors include: Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire; John Cornyn, of Texas; Ted Cruz, of Texas; Joni Ernst, of Iowa; Jeff Flake of Arizona; and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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