Senate Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a proposal to let veterans caught in long waiting lines go outside the VA system to get medical care, seeking to harness the private sector to help clean up some of the problems that have plagued the department.
The bill, dubbed the “Veterans Choice Act,” would give veterans who live far away from a VA facility or who have waited too long for an appointment the right to see another doctor outside the VA system — but the VA would still pick up the tab, including any co-payments.
“This empowers the veteran to make the decision, vs. relying on a bureaucrat to determine that they want to divert money from the VA facility to outside payment because that’s the way they’re structured within the VA,” said Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, who sponsored the bill along with fellow GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The bill will be Republicans’ chief alternative as the Senate prepares to debate fixes to the VA health system. An inspector general’s report last week found systemic problems of facilities providing poor-quality care and doctoring wait times to secure bonuses at facilities across the VA massive health care network.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has introduced a bill Democrats will push that would make some accountability changes at the VA, as well as broader changes across the health care system such as increased reproductive benefits or access to alternative medical treatments such as acupuncture.
“These problems are real and they have to be addressed, but they should not be an excuse to walk away from a system that serves 6.5 million veterans every single year,” Mr. Sanders said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “This is a system that we must fix, not a system that we should ditch.”
The VA currently has a fee-based program where a patient who needs urgent care can be sent out to a private doctor on the government’s dime. But it’s up to the VA to determine when and if that happens and, because of that, lawmakers say, it often is not allowed.
The Senate Republican bill would shift that power to some veterans. It would give any veteran enrolled in VA care a “choice card,” and if the veteran can’t be seen within a reasonable amount of time or if the patient lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility, he or she can choose to see a doctor outside the VA network.
The bill already has the support of AMVETS, Concerned Veterans for America and the American Legion, Mr. Burr said.
Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, said the GOP plan isn’t equivalent to privatization, which the organization does not support. Rather, the senators’ plan keeps the VA as the central place for veterans to get care, but allows the VA to outsource patients to help get them timely care and eliminate backlogs.
“We can’t have veterans languishing away and have tumors continue to grow over the course of 90, 120, 150, 300 days of wait times before they’re able to see specialty care,” he said. “They need to be able to get out and get that care immediately, and this legislation will help them do that.”
Mr. Celli said the American Legion would not support any plan that bypassed the VA, since such an approach could open up lots of problems in keeping accurate medical records and ensuring veterans doesn’t have to pay for care out of their own pocket.
“There’s plenty of money in the Veterans Affairs organization today to handle this,” he said. “It’s paid for already.”