GOP lawmakers raise concerns over veterans' access to health care amid pandemic

GOP lawmakers raise concerns over veterans' access to health care amid pandemic
© Greg Nash

A group of House conservatives is arguing that Department of Veterans Affairs guidance during the coronavirus crisis could limit veterans’ access to health care in certain regions. 

The letter calls for any regulations that could prevent health care choices for veterans to be retracted as economies begin to reopen. It was sent Monday to Veterans Affairs Secretary Rob Wilkie. 

“As the various states begin to free their economies from draconian coronavirus restrictions, it is critical for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to immediately overturn any related bureaucratic actions that threaten our veterans' health care freedom,” wrote the GOP group, led by House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.). 

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“We are concerned with reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has issued new guidance that is limiting access to health care choices for veterans enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) in contravention of the VA MISSION Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-182) access standards (84 FR 26278).”

The VA MISSION Act was meant to expand veterans' access to private doctors. The VA has denied that its guidance paused anything in the act, but said in March that “community care requests would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.” 

The group is calling for the VA to provide answers on whether the agency has limited or denied any referrals of those in the Veterans Community Care Program who met the criteria for eligibility and whether veterans are informed they can request a nonclinical appeal. 

They inquired into what legal authority the VA has to deny or limit authorizations and who is making those decisions; whether care has been denied because of a “lack of willing community providers to deliver care” or because the agency opted not to authorize the care; what percentage of referrals went unfilled and whether the guidance issued in March is still in effect. 

The group also questioned what processes the VA is using to ensure veterans have uninterrupted access to care, whether there is a review process for those denied care, whether there are telehealth options available for those who were denied access to care through the VA or the VCCP  (Veterans Community Care Program), whether the VA consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health on their decisions and how to determined its 90-day timeline for a pause in community referrals. 

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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. It is important that the VA does not create artificial barriers to care that lack legal authority and may in fact do more harm than good,” the letter said. 

“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," they wrote.

Reps. Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyOh, Canada: Should the US emulate Canada's National Health Service? Lawmaker-linked businesses received PPP loans House Republicans urge White House to support TSA giving travelers temperature checks MORE (Texas), Ralph Abraham (La.) and Greg SteubeWilliam (Greg) Gregory SteubeGOP lawmakers raise concerns over veterans' access to health care amid pandemic House panel advances police reform bill House lawmakers introduce bill for local chambers of commerce to receive PPP funding MORE (Fla.) also signed on to the letter. 

Biggs previously called for an investigation into VA’s handling of referrals for veterans during the pandemic.

The agency said Monday that it is not stopping or pausing the MISSION Act. 

"In fact, VA has been conducting community care referrals in many areas where it is safe to do so throughout this national emergency. Some sites are doing more referrals amid the pandemic than they were prior to the pandemic. Nationwide, VA did more than 1 million community care referrals between March and May," a spokesperson said in a statement. 

 "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. That’s why VA is taking into account whether referrals for community care are clinically appropriate during the COVID-19 outbreak."

The VA said it is taking steps to ensure veterans have access to care including continuing community care referrals for urgent clinical needs, reviewing referral requests for non-emergent care on a case-by-case basis "case-by-case basis for immediate clinical need and with regard to the safety of the Veteran when being seen in-person, regardless of wait time or drive time eligibility."

The agency added that "there will be more community care options in areas where it is deemed safe to refer Veterans to such care and where community providers are able to accept referrals" and making telehealth available for patients eligible community care who would prefer that method of care when appropriate.

—Updated at 6:41 p.m.