- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lawmakers said Wednesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ top priority must be to provide veterans health care — not making sure that health care comes from the VA.

“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,” Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said at a hearing. “After all, isn’t non-VA care preferable to no VA care at all?”

The VA has had a long-standing program to fee-base outpatients for care or procedures if they couldn’t be treated in a timely manner at the VA, but it’s been used infrequently, despite long wait lists. VA officials admitted to Congress last month that they underused the option because they felt it was more important to keep care within the VA.

“VA has made it disturbingly clear that it is unwilling to utilize existing non-VA care authority when, where, and to the extent that it should to ensure access to care for veteran patients,” Mr. Miller said. “Unfortunately, thousands of veterans have paid the price — some with their lives — for that unwillingness.”

Rep. Michael Michaud, Maine Democrat and ranking member of the committee, said he thinks concerns about budget responsibility may have prevented the VA from sending patients to outside providers.

“Unless we in Congress are willing to write a blank check to VA, we also need to be conscious of cost effectiveness,” he said.

Both the House and Senate have passed legislation that would allow veterans to see an outside provider if they faced a long wait for an appointment or a trip longer than 40 miles to a VA facility. It’s expected that lawmakers will go to conference and work on a compromise bill to send to the Senate this week.