Department of Veterans Affairs. (Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, July 07, 2014 2:47 PM
Veterans in Southwest Louisiana have endured several delays for a permanent VA clinic after a series of bureaucratic setbacks.
With the Louisiana’s delegation on the same page, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have both approved provisions to authorize 26 major medical facilities in 18 states, including two community-based outpatient clinics in Louisiana. However, the first delay came when the VA admitted to bureaucratic errors that caused the cancellation of the first round of bidding for the clinics’ construction.
“Then, after four years of looking at required square footage, VA officials realized they needed to request congressional approval for these two leases,” Rep. Charles Boustany, R.-La., wrote in an open letter to the House Committee on Veteran Affairs. “Later, (Congressional Budget Office) changed its treatment of VA leases, placing the future of these clinics and the entire VA leasing program in legislative limbo. These setbacks force thousands of Louisiana veterans to travel three hours for needed care, while others...go without needed care.”
In the meantime, Louisiana VA officials have promised a larger interim clinic in Lake Charles by November — an upgrade from the mobile clinic. But with the public’s mistrust in the VA mounting, Boustany said “clearly there have been signs that the VA has been playing games with the scheduling and not being truthful with veterans, the American people and Congress.”
Boustany said that many veterans have died because they could not outlast “the bureaucratic nightmare” at the VA and is calling for “deep reform.”
Last year, Boustany was able to get legislation passed in the House to waive the budget rule and authorize the clinics.
“It was a monumental achievement,” Boustany said by phone.
And after years of pushing the VA, Boustany said the “pathway seems clear now to approve this.”
“No one is disputing the clinics at this point and time,” he said. “I would expect that sometime in the next several weeks we’ll get this finalized and hopefully get the bill to the president to be signed. It finally takes care of all the hurdles that were in place keeping the VA from moving forward on contracting.”
Boustany said he is going to “watch this process like a hawk” because South Louisiana veterans “have been burned before.”
“That should open the door for the contracting to occur and I would hope as soon as that’s done it’s just a matter of when the construction time would be,” he said.
In the Senate passed veterans reform legislation, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., included her and Boustany’s language that authorized the construction of the two Southwest Louisiana VA clinics. Currently, the bill is in a conference committee to negotiate the differences between the House passed version, which does not include the green light provision for the two Southwest Louisiana clinics. In a letter, Landrieu pressed negotiators to include two provisions: build the Southwest Louisiana VA clinics and allow veterans without a clinic within 40 miles to receive care at local hospitals. Landrieu is also working with the conference committee to shorten the construction timeline to build the clinics in Southwest Louisiana.
“As negotiators work out differences between the bills that the House and Senate passed, Rep. Boustany and I are working to ensure the green light that was in the Senate bill to build the Southwest Louisiana clinics remains in the final bill,” Landrieu said in a prepared statement. “We are also doing everything we can to speed up the timeline for construction. The 20,000 veterans who call Southwest Louisiana home have waited four years too long for local, quality care they have more than earned.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., agreed that the clinics are “way overdue” for veterans in the region.
Vitter was able to get the deal made with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Senate bill’s sponsor, to fix the bill and include the clinics. Vitter pushed for unanimous consent to approve the clinics and Sanders objected each time. Sanders finally agreed to include the clinics and change the underlying bill and Vitter urged Republicans to drop their objections.
“The good news on the clinics is that we’re finally about to move them past the goal line,” Vitter said by phone. “I’ve been working and fighting for the last few months in the Senate to get them completely approved. (Sanders) has been standing in the way, standing in they way. Finally we got them included at my insistence. I’ve had absolute assurance that our clinics will be in the final bill and that we’ll finally get it done.”