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Illinois vets react with skepticism, hope to proposed VA reforms

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Daron Steenbergen, of Trenton, lacks faith that Congress' latest attempt to fix the troubled veterans health-care system will have any lasting impact.

Steenbergen, 46, retired from the U.S. Air Force after 22 years and is suffering line of duty injuries received while deployed overseas.

Such is his unhappiness with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Steenbergen has avoided VA care and dipped into his pocket to pay for needed shoulder surgery.

News Monday that Senate and House negotiators have agreed to release $10 billion in emergency funding to cut VA hospital wait times and improve the quality of care didn't inspire much confidence in Steenbergen.

"They're used to, 'Let's throw money at something, and it'll fix it," he said. "We all know that doesn't help, and hasn't helped in the past. Sometimes it just exacerbates the problem."

The compromise deal headed for a vote in the Senate and House later this week would allow veterans who've waited more than 30 days for treatment, or who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA hospital or clinic, to obtain treatment from a private health-care provider.

The compromise bill would also boost the VA's long-term funding, though the final amount has not been determined. Sloan Gibson, the acting VA secretary, has told Congress the agency needs $17.3 billion to get on track. Congressional observers believe the final amount of long-term funding will be lower.

The deal also calls for money to pay for 27 more leases for VA community clinics nationwide to lift some of the weight from the overburdened VA hospital system.

Robert Guithues, 41, of St. Jacob, who retired from the Army in 2012 after suffering a severe back injury in Afghanistan two years earlier, applauded efforts to send more veterans to private physicians.

Because he's on the military's Tricare system, which also serves retirees and military dependents, Guithues has relied on private health care, not the VA, which has worked out well, he said.

Guithues, who suffered a serious nerve injury in his lower back while serving as first sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division in eastern Afghanistan, walks with the aid of a cane.

By getting treatment on the private health care market, Guithues been able to see and develop a rapport with a physician near his home, he said.

Allowing the same thing for other vets "would help the VA system because it will allow those who can afford to use a doctor in the private sector to do that," he said. "That would start creating more room for the VA, instead of a back-up."

Local congressmen were not immediately available for comment or to say how they'll vote on the plan.
 

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