VA unveils proposal to expand private health care for veterans

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Veterans who live an average of 30 minutes driving time away from a Veteran Affairs medical facility would be allowed to see a private doctor under proposed guidelines released Wednesday.

The proposal released by the Department of Veterans Affair could potentially make more than a million more veterans eligible for private health care than under current rules.

“Most Americans can already choose the health care providers that they trust, and President Trump promised that veterans would be able to do the same,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement Wednesday. “With VA’s new access standards, the future of the VA health care system will lie in the hands of veterans — exactly where it should be.”

The proposal released Wednesday seeks to implement the VA Mission Act, which Congress passed in June and which Trump has touted as a signature legislative achievement.

The final rules are expected to be published this coming June.

The $55 billion VA Mission Act seeks to address the issues with an earlier law by overhauling and consolidating the network of private health care providers where veterans can use their benefits.

The earlier law, the VA Choice Act, was passed in 2014 after the wait-time scandal where administrators were found to be doctoring appointment schedules. About 30,000 appointments per day are funded through the Choice program.

Right now, veterans can use their VA benefits to see private doctors if they live 40 miles away from a VA medical facility or have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.

The rules proposed Wednesday would allow veterans to see a private doctor for primary care or mental health care if they live at least 30 minutes away or have to wait more than 20 days for an appointment.

For specialty care, the eligibility threshold would be increased to 60 minutes of drive time or a 28-day wait for an appointment.

Veterans would also be allowed to go to an urgent care facility outside of the VA system but within a forthcoming network of community care provides. Urgent care visits would be subject to a co-pay, but the bulk of the cost would be covered by the VA.

Critics have expressed concern that expanding private health care could drain resources from improving the VA system itself, undermining the system and ultimately leading to full privatization.

Some veterans groups and lawmakers have also said the VA did not consult them during the process of drafting the new rules. Lawmakers were scheduled to be briefed on the proposal Wednesday afternoon.

“We are deeply troubled VA has not consulted Congress about the access standards being considered and their projected costs,” 28 Democratic senators led by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) wrote in a letter to Wilkie on Monday.

“We are equally concerned about the extent to which the access standards you intend to designate are consistent with congressional intent for implementation of the new Veterans Community Care Program,” they added.

On Monday, Wilkie sought to head off criticisms of the proposal.

“Although these new standards represent an important win for America’s Veterans, they will not be without controversy,” Wilkie said in a Monday statement. “Some will claim falsely and predictably that they represent a first step toward privatizing the department.”

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