GOP lawmaker calls for probe into VA referrals during pandemic

GOP lawmaker calls for probe into VA referrals during pandemic
© Greg Nash

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is calling for an investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) over its handling of referrals for veterans to receive care amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to VA Inspector General Michael Missal on Tuesday, Biggs noted that a top VA official in March instructed leadership at regional care systems "to pause the use of access standards to authorize referrals to the Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP).”

The Arizona Republican said that the guidance from the VA's deputy under secretary for health for operations and management "lacked reference to the specific legal authority for the decision” and appeared to be unlawful under the VA Mission Act of 2018.

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“I respectfully request that the Inspector General investigate the VA's handling of referrals to the Veterans Community Care Program during the current coronavirus outbreak,” Biggs wrote.

The GOP lawmaker has asked the watchdog to provide answers on whether the VA limited or denied referrals to the VCCP even when individuals met the eligibility requirements and whether veterans can request a nonclinical appeal.

He also inquired on what legal authority the VA is using to deny or delay care to veterans, who is tasked with making the decisions on whether to delay or deny care and whether “geographic differences in the spread of the coronavirus [have been] taken into consideration.” 

Biggs questioned whether “authorizations to outside care [have] been denied because of the lack of willing community providers to deliver care, or simply because the VA refused to authorize care," what percentage of referrals for outside care were unfilled and whether the guidance was still in effect, what process the agency is following to ensure eligible veterans waiting for access for care are receiving “appropriate follow up and care options” and whether there is a review process for those denied care.

He inquired whether the VA consulted with third-party administrators to determine “if capacity existed in the community to deliver care," whether a process for reevaluating authorizations for community care referrals is in place and whether there is access to telehealth through the VA or VCCP. Biggs also called for answers on whether the VA is educating veterans on their options and what specifically they are doing to ensure veterans don’t face any interruptions to their care.

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“The VA MISSION Act created an abundance of new options for veterans to seek access to care outside of the traditional VA health care system to meet their unique individual needs. The VA should not create artificial barriers to care without legal authority, and which do more harm,” he wrote.

“The current coronavirus outbreak is certainly unprecedented, and the VA is facing significant hurdles in ensuring veterans can safely access care, however, it is vitally important that the VA follow the law and not arbitrarily limit or deny health care options for veterans.”

The VA, in response to an inquiry from The Hill about Biggs's letter, said it is not pausing or stopping the MISSION ACT, adding that the agency is committed to ensuring veterans receive proper care.

"We are facing a public health crisis. Our job is to make sure Veterans are cared for properly and ensure they are not contracting COVID-19," a VA spokeswoman said in a statement. "That’s why VA is taking into account whether referrals for community care are clinically appropriate during the COVID-19 outbreak."

Updated on May 6 at 11:25 a.m.