Kansas Common Sense
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Senate Must Work Together to Fix Broken VA
On the eve of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, I made a plea on the Senate floor for both my Republican and Democratic colleagues to put politics aside and pass legislation that truly addresses the failures within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). We must not follow the same path we so often do, where there is a Republican plan to fix a problem and there is a Democratic plan to fix a problem. When Members talk about side-by-side plans, it means neither one of those plans is expected to pass. Surely our veterans deserve something more than each of us being able to say we cast a vote for their benefit. Surely they deserve the actual passage of legislation that will address the challenges and problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Not a single veteran recognized by the War Memorials on the National Mall volunteered or was drafted for the purpose of advancing the cause of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. There was no interest in partisan politics by those who served our country. They served because they believed in a higher calling; they believed it mattered to the freedom and liberty of their kids and grandkids. Today we are called upon as American citizens, certainly as members of the United States Senate, to do all the things that we can do to demonstrate that we thank our veterans for their service, we respect them, and we love them. The Senate needs to rise to the occasion and not let the partisan politics of this place and this country divide us in a way in which we only symbolically respond. Click here to watch my full remarks on the Senate floor.
Hours after I spoke, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) announced a bipartisan deal on legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs by expanding veterans’ access to health care and making it easier to fire VA officials for misconduct. The bill also includes the construction of 26 new VA medical facilities in 18 states and uses $500 million in unobligated VA funds to hire additional VA doctors and nurses. I look forward to reviewing the agreed-upon legislation and debating the bill on the floor next week.
VA Hospitals in Kansas Discover Unauthorized Lists
This week I received letters from the VA Heartland Network (VISN 15) — one of 21 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) regional networks — and the Dole VA Medical Center that there were unauthorized wait lists at VA medical facilities in Kansas. The letter from VISN 15 on May 29, 2014, revealed the existence of 10 unauthorized wait lists in the VA Heartland Network, including two lists that put veterans “at risk” and resulted in 108 veterans waiting more than 90 days for health services. On May 30, 2014, I received another letter from the director of the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center confirming the existence of an unauthorized wait list that put veterans at risk – but stated that “96 veterans waited more than 90 days” for care. Later, statements to media outlets indicated an even higher number of impacted veterans, up to 385, adding to the disparate information. Click here to read both letters.
I followed-up with both of the directors for VISN 15 and the Wichita VA to get further clarification, demand accountability, and make certain veterans involved are receiving the treatment they need.
To make certain we get answers as soon as possible, I also sent a letter to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson seeking answers regarding the VA’s knowledge of new, unauthorized wait lists in the Midwest. I asked for answers on 11 specific questions, including: why is it necessary for VISNs to conduct their own internal audit while a national audit is being conducted; were the results of the VISN review part of the national audit; did the VA have knowledge of the internal VISN 15 review; when was the VA made aware of these unauthorized lists and what materials were provided by VISN 15 to the VA Office of the Inspector General; what are the results of the national audit for these same facilities within VISN 15; what actions did the VA take when made aware of the VISN 15 review; and what is the process and procedures the VA uses to account for all unauthorized actives within the VA system to make certain there is precise record-keeping for every incident? There is still a lot we do not know and we are continuing to ask questions. This week’s notification about unauthorized lists is yet another example of dysfunction within the VA. Click here to read my full message to Acting VA Secretary Gibson. Click here to see my interview with Eyewitness News KWCH.
Giving Veterans Options for Health Care
In the wake of revelations of secret waiting lists at VA medical facilities it is clear that veterans are in need of options to receive the proper care. I have cosponsored the Veterans Choice Act, which would allow a veteran to exercise their choice to receive care from the Medicare program provider of their choice or use Federal Qualified Health Centers if the VA cannot schedule an appointment within their wait time performance metrics, or if the veteran resides more than 40 miles from any VA medical center or Community Based Outpatient Clinic. This is a positive step forward in ensuring that veterans are not subjected to extensive waits for medical care and is reminiscent of a program that I’ve been trying to institute since my days in the House, which is Access Received Closer to Home or Project ARCH. Project ARCH is a congressionally authorized pilot program implemented by the VA that allows veterans to access care from non-VA community providers closer to where a veteran lives.
In an effort to provide veterans with easier access to medical care, during the Senate Appropriations Committee mark-up of the FY2015 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, I had language included that expands and extends Project ARCH (Access Received Closer to Home) beyond its expiration in September 2014, making certain it is appropriated in FY2015 at $35 million. I have also introduced the Veterans Health Care Access Received Closer to Home Act, which would reauthorize the ARCH program and expand across Kansas. Services to rural veterans are lacking and the ARCH program would allow them to receive convenient medical care.
Urging President Obama to Improve Health Care Access for Rural Veterans
I recently urged President Obama to make certain than his Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) take into account the needs of rural veterans as we work to improve and accelerate veterans’ access to health care. Rural veterans in Kansas and other states face significant challenges accessing health care through the VA system. The burdens of time and distance prevent many rural veterans from receiving basic care through a VA facility and, all too often, important preventative or follow-up care is extremely difficult to obtain. I believe that any expansion of health care outside of VA facilities should afford rural veterans the option for them to choose care in their own communities.
Rural Americans have always responded when our nation has gone to war and have consistently served in our military at rates higher than their proportion of the population. In fact, forty-four percent of U.S. recruits today are from rural areas and these men and women will become our nation’s veterans of tomorrow. Additionally, forty-one percent of all veterans enrolled in the VA health care system reside in rural communities, creating a vital need for health care access in rural areas. The disproportionate number of rural Americans serving in the military has created a disproportionate need for veterans’ care in rural areas. In order to provide timely access to for rural veterans, care options must include Critical Access Hospitals, Rural Health Clinics, Sole Community Hospitals, and other rural hospitals that provide quality, community-oriented, primary, and preventative care located where rural veterans live.
I continue to request that the VA expand a successful program already being implemented to support rural veterans called Access Received Closer to Home (ARCH). ARCH was a congressionally authorized pilot program implemented by the VA that allows veterans to access care from non-VA community providers closer to where a veteran lives. Since 2011, the ARCH pilot program has been operating in five rural sites, with Pratt, Kansas, selected as one of the communities. Analysis shows that more than 90 percent of veterans who received primary care services through ARCH were “completely satisfied” with the care, and cited significantly shortened travel times to receive this care. Coordination with non-VA community health care providers has been tested through ARCH and veterans would benefit from the VA extending and expanding the ARCH program. Click here to read the letter Senator Jon Tester of Montana and I sent to President Obama.
Senators-Only Briefings on Bergdahl Prisoner Exchange
This week I attended a Senators-only briefing about the President Obama’s decisions to exchange five Taliban prisoners in American custody for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in hopes of getting real answers from the White House. Unfortunately, there were no real answers to our questions, and I didn’t learn anything that hadn’t already been reported by the media. It is disturbing that the White House can’t answer questions including why Congress wasn’t notified about this deal ahead of time as required by law, justification for releasing these five senior Taliban officials from Guantanamo, and why we haven’t brought home Americans who remain held in poor conditions like Alan Gross and Saeed Abedini but selectively rescued Bowe Bergdahl. I will continue to work to get answers.
Proposed EPA Regulations Threaten Kansas Families, Businesses
This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new regulations on existing power plants – crafted without the input of Congress – which amount to a national energy tax. This burdensome agenda will threaten economic growth, destroy jobs, and lead to higher energy costs for Kansas families and businesses. Kansas would be especially hurt because more than 60 percent of our state’s electricity production comes from coal. At a time when our country is making progress in regaining manufacturing jobs from abroad, these regulations will again send jobs out of the United States. Washington should focus on common-sense policies to make energy cleaner and more affordable rather than more red tape and harmful regulations. I have called on President Obama to withdraw this proposal and sponsored legislation that would prevent these rules from taking effect because his Administration continues to ignore the impact a rule like this has on average Americans.
Telephone Town Hall with Kansas Hospital Administrators
On Tuesday, I visited with a number of Kansas hospital administrators through a telephone town hall. This tele-town hall allowed us to discuss a wide range of topics, including specific concerns about the federal regulatory burdens Kansas hospitals face as they work to provide quality health care to their local residents. During my time representing Kansans in Washington, D.C., I have had the pleasure of visiting each of the 127 community hospitals across our state. Visiting with Kansas hospital administrators, physicians, nurses, and other providers is very useful because it gives me insight on the unique challenges they face caring for patients, often in very rural settings across wide areas of our state.
During the tele-town hall, we discussed the effort to improve the Medicare Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) program that is causing major problems for many hospitals and providers in our state. Kansas hospitals have been forced to divert significant resources away from caring for patients to appeal incorrect audit decisions that are ultimately overturned through the appeal process. This broken RAC program places an unreasonable burden on providers, and has created a two-year appeals backlog within HHS. Another issue we discussed is CMS’ inflexible physician supervision rules relating to the provision of outpatient therapy services, which include drug infusions, blood transfusions, and cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation. These regulations are making it difficult for many hospitals in Kansas and other rural states to provide these services to patients. Additionally, we discussed the negative impact on Kansas hospitals and massive uncertainty caused by the Affordable Care Act. Thank you to the Kansas Hospital Association for coordinating this tele-town hall and thanks to all the hospital administrators that participated.
Addressing the American Savings Crisis
This week, a new documentary, Spent: Looking for Change, premiered on YouTube. This film sheds light on how inaccessibility to basic financial services makes the road to economic security long and difficult. Sadly, the stories featured in Spent are all too common in America. But the good news is there are ways we can address the financial challenges millions of Americans face. Research shows that one of the most significant factors that enhances economic mobility is savings. When individuals and families are able to create their own safety nets, they are less likely to be derailed by financial emergencies. Yet 44 percent of American households lack the savings needed to cover basic expenses for three months, leaving families vulnerable to financial uncertainty. This is one of the reasons I introduced the American Savings Promotion Act. This bipartisan legislation reduces federal barriers that prevent banks and thrifts from encouraging higher personal savings rates, which enable increased financial security and upward mobility. Passing this legislation will create stronger incentives for families to save, make mobility-enhancing investments, and navigate financial emergencies. This week, I authored an article with Representative Tom Cotton, who is a cosponsor of the House companion legislation, to highlight the positive benefits of this legislation and how we can work together to encourage greater savings and address financial insecurity in America. Click here to read our article.
Attending Fort Hays State University President’s Dinner
On Friday, Robba and I attended the FHSU annual President’s Dinner, which is held every year to thank those who have contributed to the University’s success throughout the year. It was great to spend the evening with many FHSU alumni and supporters as we celebrated the University’s outstanding achievements. This year’s dinner was bittersweet, for it was the last President’s Dinner for Dr. Edward Hammond, FHSU President. Dr. Hammond will retire at the end of this month after 28 years of service at FHSU. I wish Dr. Hammond well in his retirement and appreciate both he and his wife Mary’s hospitality and invitation to attend. Here, I'm pictured with Dr. Hammond and Dr. Mirta Martin.
Kansans in the Office
Last week we had several visitors in the Washington, D.C., office, including the Kansans listed below:
Coalition of Mental Health Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapists
Dave Bergman of Kansas City
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids
Doug Witteman of Burlington
Ron Ridley of Jetmore
American Association of Orthopaedic Executives
Jennifer Ale-Ebrahim of Wichita
Barbara Sack of Overland Park
Stephanie Swan of Lawrence
Sandra Umana of Wichita
Children’s Advocacy Centers of Kansas
Aurora Myers of Wichita
Carol Miller of Concordia
Haley Hubert of Dodge City
Lucas Moody of Emporia
Sarah Schenek of Great Bend
Jane Holzrichter of Hutchinson
Amanda Yenzer of Manhattan
Debbie Jensen of Salina
Vicki Hubin of Scott City
Crystal Schroeder of Great Bend
American Veterinary Medical Association
Michael Whitehair of Abilene
Recreation Vehicle Association
Bryan Tillet of Smith Center
Art Klee of Wichita
Kansas Livestock Association
Brandon Depenbusch of Great Bend
Rey Armendariz of Scott City
Trent Fox of Hays
Kara Lee of Leavenworth
Kansas Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence
Joyce Grover of Topeka
Financial Executives International
James Harrington of Overland Park
Builders Development Corporation
Michael Snodgrass of Kansas City
Mark Hoffman of Kansas City
Ed McKechnie of Pittsburg
Ann Heintzelman of Easton
Anna Mason of Overland Park
Noah Heintzelman of Edgerton
Samuel Heintzelman of Edgerton
Grace Heintzelman of Edgerton
Joseph Laundy of Tonganoxie
Mia Kerekes ofMerriam
Anthony Gillette of Shawnee
Lynda Gillette of Shawnee
Adam Gillette of Shawnee
Joseph Gillette of Shawnee
Wayne Wallace of Wichita
Nancy Wallace of Wichita
Brad Reighard of Spring Hill
Heather Reighard of Spring Hill
Braden Reighard of Spring Hill
Micah Reighard of Spring Hill
Dayne Ellison of Olathe
Christabel Ellison of Olathe
Stanley Duggan of Olathe
Eric Fitzpatrick of Lawrence
Lauren Wilson of Lawrence
Caroline Doel of Topeka
Jenna Buckley of Auburn
Heather Robben of Ellis
John Benkelman of Ellis
Tyler Bolen of Overland Park
Gina Bolen of Overland Park
Zachary Bolen of Overland Park
Blake Bolen of Overland Park
Jared Marx of Overland Park
Kimberly Marx of Overland Park
Samantha Marx of Overland Park
Jadyn Marx of Overland Park
Riley Marx of Overland Park
Paityn Marx of Overland Park
James Allison of Delphos
Judi Allison of Delphos
Vyctorya Allison of Delphos
Kynedi Allison of Delphos
Mykenzi Allison of Delphos
Hunter Allison of Delphos
Michael Bright of Chanute
Rebecca Bright of Chanute
Andy Starbuck of Colby
Patricia Starbuck of Colby
Drew Starbuck of Colby
Anna Starbuck of Colby
Steven Urban of Hays
Brenda Urban of Hays
Kade Urban of Hays
Kiara Urban of Hays
Mark Meyer of Leawood
Cynthia Meyer of Leawood
Alexander Meyer of Leawood
Christian Meyer of Leawood
Margaret Robben of Leawood
Jillian Robben of Leawood
Honored to Serve You in Washington
It is an honor to serve you in Washington, D.C. Thank you to the many Kansans who have been calling and writing in to share their thoughts and opinions on the issues our state and country face. I appreciate the words of Kansans, whether in the form of a form of letter, a Facebook comment or a phone call, who wish to make their voice heard.
Very truly yours,
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