Thursday, May 21, 2015
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) today applauded the Appropriations Committee’s bipartisan passage of his Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon/VA) fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill, which funds the VA at record levels, provides whistleblower protections to VA doctors and nurses, ensures that all VA employees are educated on their whistleblower protection rights, and includes serious construction reforms to ensure that fiascoes like the Denver VA Hospital construction project, which is $930 million over budget, never happen again. The bill also provides an increase in medical treatments for diseases like Hepatitis C, of which more veterans have been cured in the last 16 months than the previous 16 years. The legislation funds the VA at $69.2 billion for FY2016, an increase of $4.2 billion, or 6.5 percent, over the levels in FY2015. Senator Kirk is Chairman of the MilCon/VA Subcommittee and has held a record number of hearings this year ahead of bill introduction.
“By funding veterans’ care at record levels we are protecting Illinois’ 700,000 veterans and countless whistleblowers nationwide from the ongoing culture of abuse and retaliation that has continued to hurt our heroes,” Senator Kirk said. “There are over 200,000 veterans that have Hepatitis C, and this bill funds a record number of treatments so that we can continue to save lives and cure our heroes of this disease. Also included are funds for new family housing at Rock Island and missile defense funds for the Redzikowo site in Poland so that our nation and our allies can remain safe from threats.”
The bill provides a number of key reforms to protect whistleblowers and improve transparency in the VA. Senator Kirk spoke directly with whistleblowers from Illinois who experienced or witnessed mistreatment at the Edward J. Hines VA Hospital in Maywood, Illinois. They shared with him how the VA fails to protect whistleblowers or inform them of their rights under the law. Kirk ’s bill closes a loophole in the Whistleblower Protection Act, which would now fully protect nurses and doctors against retaliation. Senator Kirk’s bill would require that the VA ensure all employees are informed of their rights against retaliation, and of existing whistleblower protections and resources available to them. It also prohibits the VA bureaucrats from retaliating against whistleblower employees through the important performance evaluation process. The bill requires that the VA provide information to all employees so they understand their protections under the law and are therefore encouraged to report misconduct, waste, fraud, and poor patient care when they see it happening against our nation ’s greatest heroes.
Improving Medical Care
This bill funds VA medical care at $59.4 billion, which is a $3.4 billion, or 6.5 percent, increase over FY2015. Importantly, this bill funds $900 million worth of groundbreaking new Hepatitis C treatments, $622 million for medical research, $446 million for health care specifically for women veterans, $4.9 billion to care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, $232 million for traumatic brain injury treatment, and $270 million for rural health initiatives. New Hepatitis C treatments have a 97 percent cure rate. Last year the VA cured approximately 20,000 veterans, and with additional resources the VA will be able to cure even more of this terrible disease.
As Chairman of the MilCon/VA Subcommittee, Senator Kirk has continued to pressure the VA to reduce the nationwide wait time and backlog for veterans seeking a decision on their disability claim. This bill builds on Chairman Kirk ’s work over the last years to decrease the claims backlog, and to that end his bill funds $290 million for the paperless claims processing system, $141 million for digital scanning of health records, and $26 million for centralized mail. To prompt greater national and regional progress in reducing VA claims backlogs, the bill also maintains strict reporting requirements for claim processing.
Construction Reforms and Projects
The bill supports the Illinois Army National Guard by providing $1.9 million for construction of a firing range in Sparta, Illinois. Through $20 million in funding, military families at Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois, will be supplied with 38 additional housing units.
The bill imposes strict reforms on major VA construction projects to prevent wasting taxpayer money on poorly managed projects like the Denver VA Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, which is currently $930 million over budget and nowhere near completion. Senator Kirk ’s bill requires the VA to use the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage the design and construction of major projects so funds go toward veterans care instead of cost overruns due to mismanagement. In order for the VA to access funds for its major construction projects it must meet certain conditions, including the requirement that the Army Corps of Engineers manage the project.