VA chairman wants reforms for private care

The leader of an influential House panel on Wednesday called for the Veterans Affairs Department to give its patients more options for receiving medical treatment at non-VA providers. 

“Providing our veterans with timely, accessible and high-quality care — regardless of whether or not such care is provided in a VA medical facility or through a private sector provider — should be VA’s ultimate goal,” House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said during a hearing focused on the access issue.

“After all, isn’t non-VA care preferable to no VA care at all?” he asked.

Miller’s comments come a little over a week after the VA released the findings of a White House-mandated audit of its medical network. The study found that more 57,000 veterans had to wait at least three months to see a doctor. An additional 64,000 over the last decade requested care but did not receive an appointment for some reason.

“It is unfathomable to me that tens of thousands of veterans have been left without the healthcare they need for weeks, months and — in some cases — years,” Miller said.

Both the House and the Senate have approved legislation to revamp the VA’s troubled healthcare system. Each version contains proposals that would allow veterans to seek care at non-VA facilities.

House members say patients should only have to wait up to 14 days before looking outside the agency, while the Senate measure dictates they must adhere to wait times established by the VA.

Lawmakers are set to begin negotiations on merging the two bills this week.

Miller said that even though he would like to expand access to private providers, “I am in no way advocating for the dismantling of the healthcare system as we know it.”

David McIntyre, chief executive officer of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, said his company is already preparing to deal with the patient backlogs revealed by the national audit.

For instance, he said that the company’s 4,200 providers would be able to handle the vast majority of the appointments backlog at a VA hospital in Phoenix in two weeks. An initial report released last month by the VA’s inspector general found that veterans at the facility were made to wait an average of 115 days, however, official data said patient wait times averaged 24 days.