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VA Committee Tackles Health Care for Vets

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Department of Veterans Affairs, which serves only 39 percent of veterans, plans to extend outreach to the growing proportion of rural veterans and direct services toward the new and booming group of women veterans, if 19 related pieces of proposed legislation are adopted. The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs heard testimony this week on the growing number of veterans who need medical care.

The number of veteran patients doubled since 2001 after it grew by 2 million, said Adrian Atizado of Disabled American Veterans. The hearing touched on an array of legislative measures intended to keep up and expand the current VA healthcare system.

Women compose 1.8 million veterans, making them 15 percent of veterans using the VA health system, said the representative of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The number is expected to double within five years.

New legislation is expected to address this ballooning group. Programs are planned to prepare VA hospitals to care for newborns, Military Sexual Trauma training will be enhanced to extend to females, and a full-time women veterans' program manager will be at every VA hospital, said Atizado in his testimony.

Veterans who live in rural areas were the other growing group that was heavily discussed. 25 percent of veterans enrolled in the VA health system live more than an hour from the nearest VA hospital, and 40 percent live in rural areas, said the representative from Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Rural veterans have more problems with isolation and suicide than their urban counterparts. To serve this growing need, legislation is expected to outline new healthcare facilities in rural areas, as well as plans to partially reimburse veterans for their travel costs and to fully pay airfare.

Because of the prominence in family caregivers, the VA plans to provide living stipends, healthcare benefits, training, and support to family who take care of veterans.

For those who don't have family caregivers, the VA expects to hire 10,000 additional nurses and 4,000 additional physicians in 5 years. There are 149,000 nurses now

Other legislation would eliminate the requirement of copayment from those who have served their nation in the armed forces.

No mention was made, however, of how much money the plans would cost.

Among the shortcomings in the current system, one topic of particular discussion was employment method for doctor. Nurses and doctors working for the VA are on one-year contracts that must be renewed every year. Complaints arose, particularly from Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, that this does not provide any stability in the work force.

Officials from the VA were not allowed to testify because it submitted its testimony at 8:40 the night before the hearing, and Chairman Daniel Akaka of Hawaii said the late submission did not leave enough time for the committee to review the testimony for questions.

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