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Senate passes VA reform bill, including key provision meant to benefit N.H. veterans

The Senate passed a veterans reform package last night that contains a provision benefiting those in New Hampshire, where seeking care at Veterans Affairs facilities can sometimes mean traveling outside the state.

New Hampshire Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen teamed up to include a provision that allows veterans to get care outside of VA facilities. The bill – which also addresses issues regarding wait times at VA facilities across the nation – passed the Senate on a 91-3 vote. It passed in the House, 420-5, earlier this week, and now heads to President Obama for his signature.

If a veteran lives more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or community-based outpatient clinic – or more than 20 miles from a VA hospital that offers “hospital care,” “emergency medical services” and “surgical care rated by the Secretary as having a surgical complexity of standard” – he or she can seek out care elsewhere and have it covered by the VA, according to the legislation. This would also apply to veterans who live in a state, such as New Hampshire, without a VA medical facility that offers all of the aforementioned services.

In New Hampshire, the VA Medical Center in Manchester offers urgent care, primary care, mental health care and other services, according to its website. Patients are sent to Boston “for specialized procedures such as elective orthopedic and cardiac cases,” according to the website, or to White River Junction, Vt., in other cases. The Manchester VA facility also has a partnership with Concord Hospital for certain types of inpatient care. New Hampshire has outpatient clinics in Keene, Littleton, Tilton, Conway, Portsmouth and Somersworth, according to the VA website.

Ayotte and Shaheen said the Manchester facility, while commendable, lacks the full capabilities found at other VA hospitals across the country. And the trek there – or to the closest neighboring medical centers in Vermont and Massachusetts – can be arduous for the state’s veterans, they said.

Ahead of the legislation’s approval last night, both senators said the provision to allow for more options addresses concerns they’ve been hearing from New Hampshire veterans for years.

“Our veterans, they put their lives on the line to defend us, they shouldn’t have to wait, to take buses or drive long distances to get access to health care in New Hampshire,” Ayotte said.

Shaheen, likewise, said the legislation is critical for veterans because it “keeps the promise we made to say that they should be able to receive the care they need.”

Ayotte and Shaheen are expected to appear at the Merrimack VFW Post 8641 at 10:15 this morning to further discuss the reforms.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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