House unanimously passes Benishek VA health data bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — House lawmakers late Tuesday unanimously voted 408-0 approving a bill by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to report annually on the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of its health care.

“We are all too aware of the many seemingly endless scandals that have plagued the department over the last year and a half. A lack of transparency is at the heart of all these scandals,” Benishek said on the House floor. The three-term Republican from Crystal Falls in the Upper Peninsula is a member of the Committee on Veterans Affairs and a former VA surgeon at Iron Mountain.

“One of the keys to overcoming them is requiring the department to regularly provide info about the care the department regularly provides.”

The report to Congress would evaluate the VA’s efforts to boost the quality of care and veterans’ access to it, as well as assessing VA employee workloads, physician compensation and productivity, and patient utilization rates. No one opposed the bill on the House floor.

At an April hearing on the bill, VA officials told a House panel the legislation may not be needed, as much of the data it calls for is already compiled as part of an ongoing process.

In prepared comments, Dr. Rajiv Jain, the VA’s assistant deputy under secretary for health for patient care services, noted the department releases reports and data regularly on topics such as homelessness, mental health, nursing education and contracted care.

Among others, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has complained to lawmakers about the difficulty conducting studies of health care costs in the VA system because of the problems it sometimes encounters getting appropriate data from the agency about its costs and operational performance.

“The problem is we don’t know what it costs the VA to take care of a patient,” Benishek said in an interview.

He drafted the legislation after a hearing in January that tried to value the healthcare services provided by the VA, and which found “critical” information to be lacking.

“We need to get better information, and we’re not getting it from them. Every single (private) hospital in the country knows what it costs to man a clinic, because they’re keeping track of it,” Benishek said.

“There’s lots of things that we would be able to do better oversight, to make sure they’re spending responsibly. They didn’t even know they were $3 billion over budget until two weeks ago.”

He was referring to the VA’s announcement that without additional money from Congress, it would run out of money before the fiscal year ends in October. The agency says it could potentially be forced to close medical facilities and furlough staff.

His Veterans Information Modernization Act would also create a commission to assess mental health care at the VA, and would expand the definition of homeless veterans as it applies to certain benefits to include those fleeing domestic violence.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Florida, endorsed the legislation on the floor and said, “We should be working with the VA and (Housing and Urban Development) to ensure there’s transitional housing available for women veterans during this time of need.”

The legislation would also implement a tracking system for biological surgical implants such as such as skin and bone grafts and tendon replacements, so the VA may notify and locate patients of any device recalls or other supply-chain problems.

A Government Accountability Office report last year found the VA had not implemented an automated system to track which products were used in surgeries in its facilities, and that many tissue purchases came from vendors not vetted by the Food and Drug Administration.

The overall bill is estimated to cost $9 million over the next decade, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis.

The measure would be funded by extending to 2019 the practice of rounding down certain cost-of-living adjustments on educational benefits for veterans, a Benishek spokesman said.

Speaking at a national gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, President Barack Obama endorsed the work of VA Secretary Bob McDonald and his efforts to cut waiting time for veterans seeking medical care, but said neither he nor McDonald were satisfied with the progress and one of their next missions is to speed up the claims process.

Obama also criticized Republicans for insisting budget sequestration can be accomplished without weakening spending on veterans.

“Some of the reckless budget cuts under the name of sequestration … that’s not the way to keep our Armed Forces ready” or to deliver benefits to the troops and their families, Obama said. “These mindless cuts have to end.”

The House Veterans Affairs subcommittee could vote on another Benishek bill Wednesday that aims to hold individuals within the VA responsible for fixing issues identified in inspector general reports.

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