Under pressure to improve care, the Department of Veterans Affairs will allow more veterans to use private medical services to meet growing demands for healthcare, the department announced Saturday.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in a brief statement that as part of an expansion of services, veterans will be able to seek care at private clinics and hospitals in areas where the department's capacity to expand is limited.
In such situations, the VA "is increasing the care we acquire in the community through non-VA care," Shinseki said.
The agency will provide more specifics on these options in the next few days, said Victoria Dillon, a department spokeswoman. It is unclear how much this service expansion will cost. The VA already spends about 10% of its budget on private care, which cost $4.8 billion last year.
The new directive comes as Shinseki faces calls for his resignation amid allegations that VA employees have been covering up long wait times for medical care and falsified appointment records to hide the delays. A number of Republicans, at least two Democratic lawmakers and the commander of the American Legion have called for Shinseki to step down.
Twenty-six VA facilities — including sites in Phoenix, San Antonio and Fort Collins, Colo. — are under federal investigation. Shinseki is expected to present President Obama a preliminary report on the facilities in the coming week.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he was pleased by the policy change to allow private care, but thought it should have come earlier.
"It appears the department is finally taking concrete steps to address the problem," he said in a statement.
He called the move "a welcome change from the department's previous approach, which was to wait months for the results of yet another investigation into a problem we already know exists."
Miller supports legislation that would let veterans turn to private care when the VA can't meet their needs within 30 days.
The idea of increased private care has been embraced by some Republicans and Democrats as a possible response to the growing issue of shortcomings in the department's care.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has embraced the idea, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she is open to it.
Amid the allegations of treatment delays, the administration is scrambling to show a new responsiveness to criticism of how it handles the growing number of injured and ill veterans.
The president has said that he continues to support Shinseki, a decorated combat veteran and former Army chief of staff, but also that he is pressing for accountability and an improvement of services.
In his weekly radio address, Obama acknowledged that more needed to be done to help veterans, and asserted that doing so was a top priority of his administration.
"In recent weeks, we've seen again how much more our nation has to do to make sure all our veterans get the care they deserve," Obama said.
"As commander in chief, I believe that taking care of our veterans and their families is a sacred obligation. It's been one of the causes of my presidency," he said. "And now that we've ended the war in Iraq, and as our war in Afghanistan ends as well, we have to work even harder as a nation to make sure all our veterans get the benefits and opportunities they've earned."
Meanwhile, two veterans groups reacted angrily to an open letter to veterans by Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), who accused them of appearing "to be more interested in defending the status quo within the VA" because the groups had not called for new leadership at the VA.
Burr praised the American Legion for calling for a leadership change and took other veterans' groups to task, suggesting that they were "protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the secretary and his inner circle."
"Quite frankly Senator, you should be ashamed," Veterans of Foreign Wars leaders responded in a letter made public Saturday.
They told Burr, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, "You can be sure that we will let our membership know the low regard you hold for their organization."
Joseph W. Johnston, national commander of Disabled American Veterans, wrote on the group's website that he was "outraged" that Burr's accusations were made on the eve of Memorial Day weekend.
"Sen. Burr may be enamored with the idea that all of VA's problems and challenges can be overcome by replacing one secretary, but the plain facts and simple logic indicate otherwise," Johnston wrote.
VFW Commander in Chief William A. Thien and Adjutant Gen. John E. Hamilton accused Burr of a "cheap shot" and called his letter "one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we've witnessed in more than 40 years of involvement with the veteran community."
A Burr spokesman said Saturday that the VFW response to the senator's letter was "a rousing defense of the status quo at VA."