FRA NewsBytes March 27 2015

FRA Newsbytes 03/27/2015

FRA Newsbytes 03/27/2015

In this issue:
House Passes Permanent Doc Fix
VA Expands Choice Program Eligibility
Budget Resolution
Bill to Expand the VA Caregiver Program is Introduced

House Passes Permanent “Doc Fix”
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill (HR 2) to make the so-called “Doc Fix” permanent. The “doc fix” replaces the current Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) pricing methodology, which would mandate a 22 percent cut to reimbursements to doctors who see Medicare/TRICARE patients. This reduction would likely cause doctors to leave the Medicare and TRICARE programs and reduce TRICARE/Medicare beneficiaries’ access to care. The House measure also provides funding for a children’s health insurance program (SCHIP) for two more years. The provisions were negotiated by House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

The bill was approved 392-37; it scraps SGR and phases in a new pricing methodology meant to reward doctors who provide high-value care, not just high-volume care. “We’ve patched this problem 17 times over the last 11 years,” Boehner said. “I decided about a year ago that I had had enough of it.”

The bill now goes to the Senate, where opposition appears to be evaporating with the help of support from a wide array of health care and children’s groups for the SCHIP provision. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that he also backs the legislation.

The Senate did not address the measure before lawmakers began a two-week recess on Friday. The latest temporary “Doc Fix” is due to expire on April 1, but the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services has informed legislators that they can delay the physicians’ payment cut until April 14. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their senators to support the resolution when they return from recess.
VA Expands Choice Program Eligibility
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has announced that it will change the geographic calculation used to determine the distance between a veteran’s home and the nearest VA medical facility for purposes of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act (VACAA), which took effect on November 5, 2014. The VA will make a regulatory change from straight line distance to driving distance to help ensure veterans have more access to care.

VACAA was signed into law by the president last year; the new law provides a $10 billion fund to pay for non-VA care for veterans who live 40 or more miles from a VA facility or have been experiencing wait times for care of more than 30 days. VA mailed “Choice Cards” to veterans who were enrolled in VA health care as of August 1, 2014, and to recently-discharged combat veterans who enroll within the five-year window of eligibility.

The FRA-supported legislation was passed in the wake of a nationwide audit of the VA that indicated 57,000 veterans have waited more than 90 days for an appointment at VA medical facilities, and more than 64,000 veterans have requested medical care, but did not even get placed on a waiting list. The audit also found that 13 percent of schedulers were told to falsify appointment requests to make the wait times appear to be shorter than they actually were.

Veterans seeking to use the Veterans Choice Program should call 1-866-606-8198 to confirm their eligibility and to schedule an appointment.
Budget Resolution
The House passed a budget resolution for FY 2016 which, in effect, excludes Defense from mandatory budget cuts and represents the first step in excluding Defense from sequestration altogether. The House voted on six different budgets; the prevailing budget (219-208) frees up additional funding for Defense without requiring offsets elsewhere in the budget. Tthe House-passed budget increases spending on Defense above the level requested by President Obama’s budget request, which authorized $38 billion for Defense above sequestration caps. The Senate plan that passed late Thursday night maintains the statutory cap on base discretionary defense spending created by the 2011 budget law (PL 112-25). Now that both chambers have passed their budget resolutions, they will have to reconcile the differences in a conference committee and then that agreement must be approved by both chambers. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to urge their legislators to exclude Defense from sequestration.
Bill to Expand the VA Caregiver Program is Introduced
Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.) recently introduced the “Caregiver Expansion and Improvement Act” (S. 657), which would expand the current Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Caregiver program to include all caregivers who care for service-connected severely disabled veterans. Currently, the program only applies to veterans who have been severely disabled since September 11, 2001. FRA supports expansion of this program; the 5.5 million volunteer caregivers to America’s wounded warriors shoulder the responsibility of bathing, feeding, dressing, managing medication and injections, arranging for rehabilitation, and more, all while many are raising a family. A recent RAND study commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation estimates the services they provide save our nation $13.6 billion annually, yet these caregivers too often pay a price, suffering physical and emotional stress and illnesses; difficulty maintaining employment; financial, legal and family strains; and isolation. Expanding the VA Caregiver program will help all of America’s military and veteran caregivers, and members are strongly urged to use the Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their senators to support this bill.