Veterans' Access Law Stresses Transparency | Commentary

It takes a crisis to raise an issue.

One positive result of the scandal that shook the Veterans Affairs in recent months is speedy passage of the Veterans’ Access to Care through the Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014. Originally known as the Sacred Obligation: Restoring Veteran Trust and Patient Safety Act, the bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Aug. 7.

The press has given broad coverage to the bill introduced on June 9 by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on June 9. The fast-track legislation was a bipartisan initiative co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Merkely, D-Ore., Tim Kaine, D-Va. and Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., who is ranking Republican on the committee.

The transparency elements of the comprehensive law are less heralded. A close look at the “improved transparency” section deserves its day in the sunlight — and suggests that vigilance in enforcement will be critical to the long-term impact of the law’s transparency provisions.

Highlights of the law relating to transparency include a number of critical requirements, including:

· Each VA medical center will publish on a publicly accessible Internet website and in the Federal Register a regularly updated listing of the wait-times for scheduling of a medical or hospital appointment.

· The VA, in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, will provide publicly available patient quality and outcome information concerning VA medical centers through the Hospital Compare website. Data must include measures of timely and effective health care, measures of readmissions, complications of death, survey data of patient experiences and other measures.

· The “Our Doctors” website must include information on providers, residency training, physicians at particular facilities and the credentials of health care providers.

· Each veteran going through a procedure will be provided information about the surgeon to be performing the procedure, including information on the education and training of the surgeon, licensure, registration and certification. If the veteran is not mentally or physically able to deal with the information, the information will be provided to an individual acting on behalf of the vet.

The law also covers information in the president’s budget, including data on the number of vets who received hospital or medical services during the fiscal year, the amount expended by the VA on furnishing and services, the amount requested for the costs of providing care and services, and the number of employees of the VA on paid administrative leave during the fiscal year.

Significantly, the law specifically prohibits falsification of data concerning wait times and quality measures of the VA — the issue that originally blew the whistle on the VA scandal.

Veterans Day 2014 offers a reminder and an occasion for vets, their friends and families and, above all, their health care providers, to know the law. The day also offers a vivid reminder of the importance of the “right to know” that these veterans have fought to secure for all Americans. It is affirming to see that right directly benefitting them with the passage of the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014.

Patrice McDermott is executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, and author of “Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information.”