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Sen. Tester announces VA legislation, listening tour

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Sunday announced legislation and a listening tour to help solve systemic problems facing the Veterans Affairs Department healthcare system.

Tester, a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee member since 2007, spoke in Helena in the wake of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation Friday. Shinseki had been facing mounting pressure to step down from lawmakers in both parties since a scathing internal report out last week found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling healthcare system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.

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"Secretary Shinseki's resignation will not fix all the problems of the VA," Tester said. "We must fix the systemic issues at the department that leads to the lack of accountability, transparency, long wait times and a shortage of trained medical employees."

To that end, Tester announced legislation including a bill strengthening the role of the VA's Office of the Medical Inspector, which would make their reports public for the first time. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Tester is also allocating $5 million to investigate facilities around the country.

He's also supporting Appropriations language that allocates additional funding for the Department of Justice to investigate any criminal wrongdoing at the VA.

"We all know that the VA is home to thousands of workers who dedicate their lives to helping veterans and I've met staff in Montana that do nothing short of outstanding work, but as we've seen lately there are some bad apples around the country," Tester said.

Tester added that his office would set up a system to take confidential VA whistleblower complaints.

The VA has a goal of trying to give patients an appointment within 14 days of when they first seek care. Treatment delays—and irregularities in recording patient waiting times—have been documented in numerous reports from government and outside organizations for years and have been well-known to VA officials, members of Congress and veteran service organizations.

But the controversy now swirling around the VA stems from allegations that employees were keeping a secret waiting list at the Phoenix hospital—and that up to 40 patients may have died while awaiting care. A preliminary VA inspector general probe into the allegations found systemic falsification of appointment records at Phoenix and other locations but has not made a determination on whether any deaths are related to the delays.

Tester said an inspector visited the Helena VA facility last week and that results from the investigation are pending.

The visit to the Helena facility by the inspector general came just days before VA Montana Health Care System director Christine Gregory announced her retirement. She was appointed to the position in February 2013.

Tester said he didn't know whether any fraudulent reporting had taken place within the Montana VA system but that he was awaiting the results and would make them public.

"I don't know how pervasive the problem is," he said.

While waiting for report, Tester will conduct a listening tour starting in June to gather input from Montana veterans on their VA experiences. He said the tour would last several months and would influence future legislation.

"I hear from veterans all the time that getting through the door is a problem," he said. "It is unacceptable if even one veteran is not getting the healthcare they need," he said.

Tester has also introduced legislation meant to recruit and retain medical professionals. One bill would remove the cap for student loan repayments and reauthorize a program allowing the VA to provide tuition assistance for students pursuing VA employment. He's also pushing for the VA to continue and expand a pilot program that allows veterans to find care closer to home.

He called his legislative efforts "common sense," and said he was optimistic about his bills and others passing because veterans as a group have bipartisan support.
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