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Bill Creating ‘Parallel System’ Of Veteran Health Care Clears First Legislative Hurdle

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A bill that would create a Florida system parallel to the existing federal Veterans Health Administration passed its first committee hearing Tuesday.

It would allow veterans to opt into the state’s Medicaid system in addition to or even instead of the VA.

Bill sponsor Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, told the upper chamber’sHealth Policy Committee there was precedent for this type of state program drawing on federal funds. He pointed to how the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program funds Florida’s KidCare, which provides poor children with things like primary and dental care.

“If you look at the experience that we had with Florida KidCare, I use that as an example where you can have a parallel system for the funding. You use it as a financing mechanism. When you look at the way the CHIP dollars come into the state through the KidCare program and fund these insurance benefits for children, that’s the same thing we can do with the federal dollars coming in through the state to provide services for veterans,” he said.

In 2014, the Office of the Inspector Generalreleased a scathing report that found rampant mismanagement of the VA and outrageous wait times for patients seeking care. In response,  Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which gave veterans access to non-VA providers if they lived more than 40 miles away from a VA center.

Garcia admits after some high-profile government and news reports the federal Veterans Affairs system has improved its presence in the Sunshine State, but he said creating what he’s calling the state Veterans Care program would lead to better outcomes for Florida veterans by allowing them to visit doctors of their choosing.

“We can get more veterans covered in the state of Florida and we know the veteran care delivery system, not only in the state of Florida, but across the country, could be a lot better,” he said.

Garcia’s measure would not allow state funds to be used for the program and permission from the federal government would be needed to proceed with his plan. Veterans would be allowed to take advantage of the program without having to give up any additional federal or state health benefits.

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, is cosponsoring the measure.

Florida has the third largest population of veterans in the country, behind California and Texas. Jacksonville has one the largest populations of veterans and active duty military in the state.

Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.