- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2016

President Obama objected Thursday to a new governing board to oversee health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it would undermine the VA secretary’s authority and make it harder for the scandal-ridden agency “to implement transformative change.”

The president said the recommendation by a national commission for a new “board of directors” for the nation’s largest health care system also would “weaken the integration” of the VA’s medical program with other services. He also said the Justice Department has advised that the extra layer of oversight “would violate the appointments clause of the Constitution.”

A national commission assigned to come up with VA reforms issued its report in early July, recommending expanded options for medical treatment and a “bold transformation of a complex system that will take years to fully realize.” The agency has been rocked by a series of scandals, from veterans dying while awaiting appointments to failure to punish wrongdoing by employees and a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers.

A majority of the commission said the VA Choice Program, created by Congress in 2014 to allow veterans to seek private care when they can’t obtain timely appointments at VA facilities, is flawed in design and execution. The panel instead proposed a new network of care for veterans that would include Department of Defense medical facilities and private doctors and hospitals credentialed by the Veterans Health Administration.

The president endorsed that recommendation, saying it’s “critical that we preserve and continue to improve the VA health care system,” and that research shows the VA often delivers better care than the private sector.

“VA also provides unique, highly specialized care for many medical conditions, such as spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, which are simply not available to the same extent outside of VA,” he said.

Mr. Obama urged Congress to enact alternately VA’s “plan to consolidate community care,” saying it would “more clearly ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of the VA health care system, preserve VA’s role as the primary coordinator of care for veterans and safeguard its ability to carry out its other research, education and emergency preparedness missions that are critical to our nation’s well-being.”

Dan Caldwell, vice president of the Concerned Veterans for America, said Mr. Obama “is again demonstrating that he is not serious about fundamentally reforming the VA.”

“The commission’s recommendations leave the Department of Veterans Affairs as the primary gatekeeper for veterans accessing private health care, effectively denying veterans who use the VA true health care choice,” Mr. Caldwell said.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald said any reforms of the VA must not result in privatizing veterans’ health care services.

“We do not support any policies or legislation that will lead to privatization, which I am pleased the commission did not recommend outright,” he said. “Privatization is not transformational. It’s more along the lines of dereliction of duty.”

Mr. Obama agreed with 15 of the commission’s 18 proposals, including enhancing clinical operations, modernizing IT systems and eliminating disparities in how health care is delivered to veterans from different backgrounds. He said Mr. McDonald is already implementing many of those recommendations.

“These reforms are steps in the right direction and will help put VA on a trajectory to ensure veterans continue to receive

timely and high-quality care, while strengthening the VA health care system that millions of veterans depend on every day,” Mr. Obama said in a message to Congress.

Congress created the Commission on Care in 2014 as part of a law to reform the VA, with the 15 commissioners appointed by congressional leaders and the president. The panel concluded that health care in the VA system is often better than private services, but the VA itself suffers “chronic management and system failures, along with a troubled organizational culture.”

The law also created the Choice Program, in which veterans qualify for private care if they face a wait of more than 30 days for a VA appointment or live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA clinic.

Under the law, Mr. Obama had 60 days to respond to the commission’s recommendations.

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