Addresses Veteran Concerns During Town Hall Event
On September 27, 2023, Representatives Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Chris Pappas (D-NH) filed the Preserving Access to Patient Reimbursement Act (PAPR Act). This bill would ensure that all veterans would be able to continue to fully participate in the travel reimbursement program without interruption. This was made necessary due to a change in policy by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that is set to complicate this issue for our national heroes. Alongside veteran David Dunning, Executive Director of the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and Clinics, Congressman Bilirakis held a town hall on October 2nd to listen to and address the concerns of the 200-plus veterans in attendance.
As stated in a press release by Bilirakis’ office, he began receiving emails in July of 2023 from veterans throughout his district who were disgruntled by the change to the VA Travel Reimbursement program. The policy in question would require veterans to submit their requests for recompense online. They would no longer be given the option to use paper forms. Previously, it had been encouraged, but not mandatory, to navigate the VA’s online portal.
Many veterans do not have access to an online connection, do not own a computer, or are simply uncomfortable using the internet. When airing their grievances at Tuesday night’s town hall at the VFW Post on Edward R. Noll Drive, multiple veterans noted how they should not have to fight the VA after fighting for this country. Bilirakis and Dunning agreed and asked the retired military members meet with their staff members at the meeting so their offices could provide the proper support moving forward.
“It is simply unconscionable that the VA would implement a nationwide policy that threatens to leave many of our most vulnerable veterans behind,” said Congressman Bilirakis. “By effectively eliminating access to the travel reimbursement program for some veterans, the VA is jeopardizing their ability to get the healthcare they’ve earned and deserve… I will not stop fighting until a commonsense solution to this manufactured problem is implemented.”
For those veterans who live in remote, rural locations in the district, it does not just mean their internet connection is likely to be poor. It also results in a long commute of up to 30 miles both ways for hospital appointments. Some need care more than once a week as well. The wear and tear put on an individual’s car, combined with ballooning gas prices, makes reimbursement especially critical for veterans on a fixed income.
Following Congressman Bilirakis’ efforts to work with the local VA to remedy this, he was informed that the directive of disallowing paper forms was nationwide and would take effect starting Fiscal Year 2024. The result will remove local VA centers’ access to a “mechanism to process paper forms.” That is when he got to work on the bill. The congressman found this practice unacceptable, so he filed the PAPR Act to fix it. Fortunately for veterans, there is another option that Dunning, who has 30 years of healthcare experience in the U.S. Army, presented to them at Tuesday’s town hall.
“If you are eligible for [Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System], when you make your appointment, you can also make an appointment to have Uber Health come pick you up and take you home,” said Dunning. “You don’t even have to have a phone. They’ll come and pick you up, they’ll bring you to us, and then they’ll bring you back home. No bill goes to you, you don’t have to file for travel. It’s done.”
Many other issues were discussed at the gathering. For much of the two-plus hour proceedings, veterans were given the opportunity to step up to the podium and speak directly to Representative Bilirakis and Director Dunning about what is ailing their community. While homelessness among former military personnel has been on the decline since 2010, that is an issue to stay vigilant on considering the modern economic climate.
The tragedy of suicides was also broached. According to the American Addiction Center, 17 veterans committed suicide a day in 2020 due to PTSD and addiction, among other factors. Representative Bilirakis and company are working on solutions for many of these issues and are looking to have the PAPR Act swiftly passed.
“Congressman Bilirakis has been a strong proponent of VA Choice, which gives Veterans the option to receive private care in the community instead of driving to the VA when the VA doesn’t provide the services near them,” said Summer Blevins, Bilirakis’ Chief of Staff. “He is also working with James A. Haley to bring more services closer to veterans in Hernando and Citrus Counties… This bill is very narrow in scope just to ensure these individuals don’t get left behind. We hope to be able to push it through very quickly.”