- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The VA said Wednesday that it wants to consolidate seven different programs that allow veterans to receive care from private doctors, saying that the operations have become too unwieldy as Congress has added more beneficiaries to the rolls.

Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said veterans are getting confused by the multiple programs, each with different eligibility rules, and that means some of them aren’t using programs that could help. He said their new plan would make sure that when a veteran seeks care and the VA can’t provide it in a timely manner, they can get it from a private doctor.

“It’s all too complicated. Too complicated for veterans, for community providers, and for VA staff as well,” he told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

Mr. Gibson said the VA would need a “one time” infusion of $421 million to begin fine-tuning the programs, and between $400 million and $600 million a year going forward. But he said the cost could spike if the New Choice Program, as the VA is calling it, proves so popular that it attracts new patients.

The plan would clarify patient eligibility requirements, streamline the co-pay and provider billing and reimbursement process and create a good network of private doctors working with the VA, and able to share medical records with the department.

Senators questioned the cost, with Sen. Mazie Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, saying $421 million just to design an implementation plan may not be the “best bang for the buck.” And Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said the VA needs to worry about more fundamental reforms in his state, which lacks a full-service VA hospital.

The VA had promised to set up a pilot program for Alaska veterans to see private doctors, but has not made any headway on it.

“On behalf of my veterans, I’m pissed,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Congress wrote the Choice Program into law last year as a way of helping veterans after the VA was caught shunting many of them onto secret wait lists. Veterans who sign up and who live far from a VA facility or who have waited too long for an appointment can now see a private doctor at government expense.

The administration was resistant at first, proposing shifting money away from the program. But in recent weeks it has been more accommodating.

The VA plans to put together a list of private doctors in the community that provide services up to the agency’s standard and would partner with the agency to provide care, Dr. David Shulkin, the VA’s undersecretary for health, said.

“We want to help guide veterans with the right information, let them see it and then allow them to make the choice,” Mr. Shulkin said.

The plan was too vague for veterans service organizations. Roscoe G. Butler, deputy director of the American Legion, said the VA needs to give details rather than just stating its goals.

Private doctors also need to understand military culture, and the agency needs to do better in sharing medical records with the private sector, Mr. Butler told the committee.

The agency has already begun implementing some parts of its consolidation plan, including releasing updated eligibility requirements for the Choice Program on Tuesday.

Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, said he was heartened by the progress the VA had made.

“For all the bad stories you hear about, they’re mostly stories that have happened in the past that we’re trying to correct, not things that are happening today,” he said.

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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