In 2018, Democrats and Republicans in Congress decided it was time to give America’s veterans real, permanent health care choices.
Four years earlier, VA exploded in a scandal that revealed officials were covering up how long veterans were waiting for care. Some veterans even died waiting for care.
Under President Barack Obama, Congress created a temporary program that gave some veterans the ability to access care in the private sector, known as community care. A few years later, under President Donald Trump, Congress built on that progress by passing the MISSION Act to create a permanent program that has given millions of veterans guaranteed choice and access to community care.
The MISSION Act was a bipartisan solution that recognized the reality of caring for today’s veterans. They don’t all live near the World War II-era brick-and-mortar VA facilities, wait times at VA may be too long, and the best care available to them may not be found inside VA. Congress rightly decided to put veterans at the center of their care decisions and give them access to the best possible choice, whether inside VA or elsewhere.
Today, this choice that veterans earned through personal sacrifice to our country is being threatened. COVID-19 delayed millions of medical appointments, and we have seen several troubling signs that VA is pushing to make sure those appointments are rescheduled only in VA facilities, not in the private sector, regardless of what’s in the best interest of these veteran patients.
One clear signal comes from veterans themselves, who tell us it is hard to book an appointment outside VA. But we see other evidence when we look at the number of appointments, their timeliness, and VA funding priorities.
First, VA’s own data shows it isn’t doing enough. In June, VA Secretary Denis McDonough testified that 1.25 million community care appointments took place through VA between March and May of 2021, or about 400,000 per month.
Mr. McDonough described that as progress, but it’s only a slight increase from 2020 when COVID-19 severely reduced the number of community care appointments available to veterans. Before COVID-19, about 2.7 million community care appointments were taking place each month – more than six times higher than VA’s current pace. With COVID-19 restrictions loosening up, VA has no good reason for discouraging medical appointments outside VA.
Second, VA has failed to meet the MISSION Act’s goal of timely appointments for care in the private sector. The law says it should take 20 to 28 days to get an appointment for community care.
Last year, however, VA data showed it was taking 41.9 days. So far, the new administration has done nothing new to reach that goal.
Third, while VA is slow-walking community care, VA is also seeking a dramatic increase in its own funding, a sign VA is looking to capture the canceled COVID-19 appointments for itself. We’re all for a strong VA, but we cannot forget the promise we made to veterans just a few short years ago when both parties agreed veterans had earned the right to choose.
We cannot watch this hard-fought benefit slip away. To protect it, we formed Veterans 4 America First Institute, which includes some of the same VA officials who advised the department on how best to implement the new law.
As a start, we are working with Congress to pass legislation that would turn the MISSION Act’s recommendation of timely private-sector care access into a permanent requirement. The Guaranteeing Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served Act, or the GHAPS Act, would make these and other critical changes to the MISSION Act.
Join us at Vets4AmericaFirst.org, and help us deliver on the MISSION Act’s promise of health care choice for Americans who stood up to defend our interests and way of life.
• Darin Selnick is an Air Force veteran, former senior adviser on veterans issues at VA and the White House, and co-founder of Veterans 4 America First Institute.