Tester Introduces Comprehensive Bill to Improve Veterans’ Access to Timely Community Care

Chairman’s legislation would strengthen the community care program for veterans and providers; Increase veterans’ access to timely, quality care

(Big Sandy, Mont.) – Continuing his efforts to improve veterans’ access to the care they’ve earned, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester recently introduced comprehensive legislation to strengthen the delivery of non-Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) care for veterans, particularly in rural areas.

The Senator’s Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act of 2023 would build upon the community care program Congress put in place with the VA MISSION Actremoving red tape from the referral process that has caused delays in care for some veterans. It would also improve mental health and substance use disorder treatment for veterans needing residential care; provide new self-referral options for vision and hearing care to give veterans more control over their health care; invest in recruiting and retaining schedulers to expedite veterans’ access to care; and strengthen critical oversight tools to provide greater transparency over appointment referrals and scheduling.

“We’ve got to ensure veterans can access the top-notch care they have earned—no matter where they live,” said Tester. “When veterans can’t be seen by VA in a timely manner, or have to drive too far for VA care, they need to be quickly connected with care in their community. That’s why I introduced legislation to improve VA’s community care program and make sure it’s working the way veterans deserve.

Among its many provisions, the Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act of 2023 would:

  • Require VA to schedule internal and community care appointments in a timely manner;
  • Finalize the joint patient and provider decision on when it’s best for that veteran to receive care in the community;
  • Make existing wait time and drive time standards law;
  • Strengthen veterans’ access to residential treatment programs for mental health and substance use disorder;
  • Support highly competitive scheduler hiring with education incentives and pathways to support other administrative offices that have high vacancy rates, including human resources;
  • Provide benefits to veterans when harm, disability, or death is caused by non-Department providers;
  • Require VA adopt national interoperability standards for the electronic transfer of health information to increase VA’s coordination of veterans’ care; and
  • Extend the time providers can submit bills for reimbursements.

Tester has long fought to improve veterans’ access to their hard-earned health care and benefits. In 2018, he worked with 38 military and veterans groups to pass the bipartisan VA MISSION Act to streamline VA’s community care process and get rid of the one-size-fits-all community care system that was previously in place. He has also held multiple Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee oversight hearings to evaluate veterans’ access to timely, quality health care in the community and the implementation of the VA MISSION Act, including a hearing in June to examine the effectiveness of VA’s Office of Integrated Veteran Care.

The Senator’s Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act of 2023 is supported by numerous Veterans Service Organizations.

“The Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act of 2023 is a meaningful step toward timely, quality, and accessible care for our nation’s veterans,” said The American Legion’s National Director Vincent J. “Jim” Troiola. “By implementing high-quality standards between community providers and the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans will see reduced wait times, bridged gaps in specialization care, and shorter drive times. The American Legion supports Senator Tester’s Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act of 2023 to enhance the VA Community Care Program.”

“The Community Care program at VA is a necessary supplement to care offered for veterans,” said the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Legislative Director Pat Murray. “However, there are parts of that program that have not been running smoothly for veterans and need to be improved. The Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act is a great step toward ensuring veterans receive the care they have earned both in VA facilities and also in the community. The VFW thanks Senator Tester for making this a priority.”

“As the Department of Veterans Affairs prepares to treat more than 7 million veterans in the year ahead, Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) continues to advocate for improvements to help make sure that the health care provided is timely and of the highest quality,” said WWP President of Government and Community Relations Jose Ramos. “The Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act would take several notable steps forward like creating new opportunities for veterans to self-schedule appointments, charting progress for interoperability between VA and community providers, and setting higher standards for how VA cares for veterans seeking residential care for mental health.  Wounded Warrior Project thanks Senator Tester for crafting this legislation and his continued prioritization of our nation’s veterans.”

“Community care has been instrumental in expanding health care options to veterans, but if they can’t access that care in a timely manner, it's meaningless,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) CEO Allison Jaslow. “The Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act is an important step toward fixing the unacceptable appointment wait times for veterans care in the community, in addition to making other common sense modifications to this critical health care program. IAVA proudly supports this legislation, applauds Senator Tester for his continued leadership on behalf of the veteran community, and we urge the rest of the United States Senate to join this important effort to improve access to community care.”

“The National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs (NASDVA) recognizes the critical importance of VA’s Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP),” said NASDVA President James S. Hartsell. “It is a vital part of the full spectrum of health care available to veterans, particularly where VA capacity is not adequate and for those veterans in rural areas with long travel times. Comprehensive legislation proposed by Senator Tester, the Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act of 2023 will address ongoing challenges with the VCCP by codifying existing access and scheduling standards; requiring more robust provider data on quality of care; and giving VA the tools it needs to schedule more timely appointments …NASDVA commends and supports the introduction of this legislation.”