Louisiana delegation seeks funding for VA clinics

The Louisiana congressional delegation is taking another run at getting a green light for two planned but star-crossed Veterans Affairs medical clinics, in Lafayette and Lake Charles.

The latest attempt is tied to an effort by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to push a VA bill to the U.S. Senate floor. Sanders said the committee will hold a hearing Thursday on his measure, which resurrects some elements of legislation that died in the Senate early this year and includes new proposals.

The Sanders legislation would authorize the VA to lease space for 27 delayed clinics in 18 states, including the two in Louisiana. Plans for the clinics were cast in doubt when congressional budget officials adopted a new, higher-cost formula for estimating lease expenses. A U.S. House-approved bill to authorize the leases fell victim to procedural wrangling in the Senate early this year.

Authorization of the leases puts them on the VA’s to-do list, but does not provide money for them. That would require separate legislation.

The 27 clinics have been designated by the VA in its budget requests as necessary to satisfy unmet needs for veterans’ medical care. The VA operates 800 clinics nationwide.

The VA operates a small clinic in Lafayette now and has set up a mobile clinic in Lake Charles, but neither is considered sufficient by the agency.

In a news release, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., took credit for getting the lease provision in Sanders bill, as well as for a related provision that would allow veterans to receive medical care from private health care providers at VA expense until the delayed VA clinics open.

Landrieu also acknowledged the support of U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, for a solution to the clinics snafu.

Landrieu attached the private care “bridge” provision to a separate bill that passed the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last month.

The bill also would give the VA authority to immediately remove senior executives based on poor job performance while preventing “wholesale political firings” that Sanders said could be allowed under a similar bill approved by the House. Landrieu said she helped secure accountability provisions in the bill.

The bill also would allow veterans who can’t get timely appointments with VA doctors to go to community health centers, military hospitals or private doctors.

The bill comes amid a growing scandal over patient delays and cover-ups at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide that led to the resignation last week of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. A federal investigation into the troubled Phoenix VA health care system found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official waiting list.

The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems throughout the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Tuesday that he is seeking information from the VA about the treatment provided a U.S. Navy veteran who died at the New Orleans VA hospital in 2011. Vitter said that according to the veteran’s daughter, the veteran received poor treatment and was waiting for critical care when he died.

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