NEW AND IMPROVED?
THE ISSUE: Rollout of VA Veterans Community Care Program.
OUR OPINION: Time will determine if enhanced care is realized
Consumers periodically experience products being trumpeted as “new and improved” only to find that while they may be new, they may be no better and, at times, even worse.
This was the experience of veterans in the VA Veterans Choice Program (VCP) created by Congress in 2014 in response to the shameful revelation that scores of veterans had died while waiting inordinately for needed VA health care.
Touted as a remedy for reducing lengthy wait times, the VCP afforded veterans waiting longer than 30 days for an appointment or residing more than 40 miles from the closest VA facility the option of receiving health care from a private hospital, physician or specialist.
Following implementation, concerns by veterans prompted Congress to request the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) to review the VCP. Regrettably, it found that 53 percent waited an average of 45 days to receive care, 35 percent waited an average of 72 days to be scheduled, and 13 percent were returned to the VA without receiving care. Also, due to payment delays to providers, veterans were billed for their medical care with many experiencing adverse credit reporting for the unpaid bills.
In light of the OIG’s findings, Congress passed the bipartisan Mission Act last summer mandating changes aimed at strengthening the VA’s ability to deliver timely, high quality health care through a network of private sector providers, cutting-
edge technology and streamlined procedures.
The most important change for veterans receiving VA health care is the replacement of the VCP with the Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP). The VCCP reduces private sector care eligibility from a 30-day wait for a scheduled appointment and residing 40 miles from the closest VA medical facility to 20 days and 30 miles. Also, the treatment of minor injuries and illnesses is now available
in VA approved urgent/walk-in care facilities.
During this week’s June 6 rollout of the VCCP, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie trumpeted it with unbridled optimism. Nonetheless, as noted by the Veterans Healthcare Action Campaign, implementation could be tempered by the following imponderables that only time will determine.
- Outsourced care, estimated to be three times as expensive as VA care, could lead to reduced eligibility and increased charges for the veteran.
- As outsourced care expands, current VA funding that’s already inadequate to effectively treat a growing population of veterans could dwindle.
- Channeling veterans into the private sector could result in the fragmentation of the VA’s high quality integrated care targeted to veterans’ war-borne ailments.
- The VCCP’s significant expansion of eligibility for private sector care could potentially trigger a mass exodus of VA patients and possibly overwhelm a private sector already short providers.
Many veterans and military organizations share Secretary Wilkie’s unbridled optimism. Nonetheless, the failed promises of past VA reforms are a reminder that cautious optimism should be the watchword until time determines whether or not the Mission Act of 2018 has ushered in a new and improved era of VA health care.