The VA admitted Wednesday that it will miss a deadline to get veterans their new Choice health cards, failing on the first key test Congress gave the troubled department and new Secretary Bob McDonald in the wake of the wait list scandal.
Mr. McDonald said in a blog posting that the cards will be mailed out in three phases beginning now and extending into next year — though all of the cards were supposed to have been mailed by Tuesday under the law Congress passed this summer.
Veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for care will be among those still waiting for their care cards after this week, Mr. McDonald said.
“VA has signed contracts with two private health care companies to help VA administer the Veterans Choice program,” Mr. McDonald wrote in the post. “We will begin implementing this benefit on Nov. 5, as required by law. A call center is now operational to answer your questions and verify your eligibility for this program.”
The department has known for some time that it would miss the deadline but didn’t ask Congress for an extension on the law’s implementation, according to a veterans advocate familiar with the bill’s implementation.
Congress had said the VA’s ability to send out the cards on time was a key test for the Obama administration and Mr. McDonald, whom the president tapped to replace Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. Mr. Shinseki resigned over the summer after reports surfaced that dozens of veterans may have died while awaiting care at VA clinics.
Even as the department tries to implement programs to fix the wait time problems, more reports of care issues are surfacing. Nurses found a quadriplegic patient at a Hampton Roads VA hospital unresponsive during rounds but were unable to tell the family how long he had been in that state, according to a VA inspector general report released Wednesday.
The patient later died. Though the report found that nurses did not follow a policy to check on the patient every half-hour, it could not determine if the failure directly led to his death.
Mr. McDonald briefed the president Wednesday on where the care cards and his other plans for his first three months in office stand. The president thanked him for his work and said he wants him to continue trying to reduce wait times and focus on homelessness among veterans, a White House official said.
The White House statement made no mention of whether Mr. Obama was satisfied with the timetable for sending out the choice cards.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said it is “disappointed” in the VA for missing the deadline.
“This is another fumbled opportunity to deliver for our nation’s veterans or be fully transparent about an inability to do so,” said Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA’s founder and CEO.
The Choice Card program allows veterans waiting more than 30 days for an appointment or living more than 40 miles from a VA facility to seek care outside the VA health care system. It was instituted as a reaction to allegations earlier this year that veterans died or received poor quality care while waiting on secret lists.
The law that created the program states that the secretary must issue a card to each veteran not later than 90 days after the signing of the bill, which falls on Nov. 5. Cards mailed out Tuesday would be compliant with the law, but those sent out in subsequent phases will have missed the deadline.
A VA spokeswoman provided a document pointing to other progress the department has made since the law was passed, including expanding a scholarship eligibility to spouses of service members who died in the line of duty and contracting MITRE Corporation to conduct independent assessments of VA health care processes.
The first group of veterans to receive their cards will be those who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. Those cards are “currently being sent,” the blog post said.
The second group of veterans — those who have been waiting more than a month for care — should receive the cards “shortly thereafter,” the blog said.
Finally, in December or January, all other vets will receive their cards in case they need to go outside the VA in the future, the blog says.
Ian de Planque, national legislative director of the American Legion, said that providing cards to more than 9 million veterans is a “daunting task.”
“I think VA is trying to break that down into manageable chunks,” he said. “I do think it has to be frustrating for veterans who are wait time veterans to have to wait a little bit longer.”
While he could not say definitively why the VA chose to send out cards in that order, he speculated it was easier to find veterans who lived more than 40 miles from a facility than it was to identify every veteran who had been waiting too long for care.