House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she'd support a shift to privatizing more healthcare services for the nation's veterans.
"I don't have any problem with that," she told reporters in the Capitol.
Amid the simmering scandal over protracted wait times at facilities run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) is vowing to introduce legislation granting veterans more flexibility to seek care in the private sector. Some liberals fear the move is part of a broader GOP plan to privatize veterans care altogether.
But Pelosi said the sheer number of veterans entering the VA system, combined with geographic and logistical hurdles facing many of those patients, makes Miller's idea an attractive one — as long as government-run facilities also remain available to cater to vet-specific needs.
"An appendectomy might be one thing; an amputation [is] another," she said. "And so it [Miller's plan] isn't a panacea, but I would certainly be open to that because of volume and because of geography."
Pelosi downplayed the concerns that Republicans want to dismantle the VA system in favor of the private sector. “I don't think that's how they see it," she said and urged policymakers to "think in a bigger way" about how best to care for the nation's service members.
"A big part of accessibility is logistics; it's getting there and what does it cost to get there. … It's a very personal set of responsibilities," she said. "We want the care to be given where it works for the veterans."
The comments came one day after the release of a damning interim report from the VA's Office of Inspector General (IG) that found that some veterans in the federal system in Phoenix faced wait times averaging 115 days, many times the agency's stated goal of 14 days. Some veterans have reportedly died around the country, as they awaited care at VA facilities.
Miller, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said he'll soon introduce legislation allowing veterans facing wait times exceeding 30 days to seek treatment in private facilities on the VA's tab.
"Now is the time for immediate action," Miller said. "We simply can't afford to wait for the results of another investigation into a problem we already know exists."
Pelosi said Congress must increase funding for veterans’ healthcare, wherever it's administered. But she endorsed a system where VA facilities and the private sector operate in tandem to meet veterans’ needs most efficiently.
"This is not an unknown thing. Years ago, military personnel could have access to other hospital care [outside the VA]," she said. "Some friends who are veterans have said, 'The card we got to take any place for care really wasn't worth as much as you might think it is.' So if we are to go down another path, we have to do it right."
Pelosi also urged Congress to extend unemployment insurance and raise the minimum wage, adding that those steps would help veterans on a different front.
"We have to understand that the needs of our veterans go beyond the Veterans Administration," she said.
In the wake of Wednesday's IG report, a wave of lawmakers, including more than a dozen Democrats in Pelosi's caucus, joined an already formidable Republican call for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
But Pelosi praised Shinseki on Thursday, warning that any move to topple the embattled secretary might whitewash the potential wrongdoing of other VA employees who should be the real focus of Congress's scrutiny.
"We have to be careful about thinking that just because you remove the top person, means that you've changed the systemic problem that existed … years before Shinseki became the secretary," she said.