On Thursday, August 7, President Obama signed a $16.3 billion bill to fix the broken Veterans Affairs Department in hopes of fulfilling a “sacred duty” to provide adequate healthcare to returning veterans and their families.
The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (H.R. 3230) includes provisions specific to VA clinical social workers and their clients, and also empowers a private-sector entity to recommend a thorough overhaul, potentially in less than two years, of the VA’s healthcare operations. Other aspects of the Act provide for greater access to non-VA healthcare services for veterans using a new “Veterans Choice Card”; power to the Secretary to fire poorly performing senior executives; and expansion of healthcare related to sexual trauma.
With regard to clinical social work, the Act appropriates $5 billion to employ more “physicians, nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, and other health care professionals,” to hire and provide educational support for members of the five most-needed VA healthcare professions, and to improve infrastructure and acquire equipment (section 801). At the same time, the Act re-affirms the VA’s commitment to Special Advancement for Achievement (SAA) programs, funded up to $360 million per year for healthcare employees. The current SAA “professional pay” program for clinical social workers thus would appear to be legislatively protected by Section 705 of this Act.
Section 201 of the Act requires the VA Secretary to contract with a private-sector entity or entities to assess all “hospital care, medical services, and other care furnished in medical facilities” by the VA or under contract to the VA. Among other things, the evaluating entity will address “the organization, workflow processes, and tools used by the Department to support clinical staffing, access to care,” etc. Its mission is urgent; it will file its report within 240 days from the start of its work. Further, the Act (per Section 202) establishes a new Commission on Care to carry out the recommendations by “strategically examin(ing) how best to organize the VHA, locate health care resources, and deliver health care to veterans”.