On the eve of what is likely to be a heated congressional hearing on VA healthcare, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Tuesday that it would offer veterans facing waits of more than 30 days for appointments the option of seeking private healthcare.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, 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."
The action also comes as Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki has faced calls from not only congressional Republicans but also Democrats to resign. Shinseki is to present to President Obama this week the preliminary results of a nationwide audit of VA health facilities that could determine whether the retired general holds on to his job.
The VA announced Saturday that it would allow veterans to seek care at private clinics and hospitals in areas where the department’s capacity to expand is limited.
On Tuesday, the department provided some details of its initiative, announcing, for example, that VA clinics are looking at extending their hours to include nights and weekends.
The VA will make a minimum of three attempts to contact new patients who face waits of 30 days or more for an appointment to see if they can be seen sooner. If patients cannot be seen sooner at a VA facility, they will be offered the option to seek care at a private facility, under the new initiative.
A spokesman for the VA could not immediately say how many patients were waiting 30 days or longer for appointments. VA facilities will review cancellations and available appointments daily at VA facilities to advise veterans on waiting lists of any openings.
"The purpose of the initiative is to strengthen access to care in the VA system while also ensuring flexibility to use private-sector care when needed in accordance with VA guidelines," says a fact sheet issued by the VA on Tuesday.
Miller last week announced plans to introduce legislation to offer veterans unable to obtain a VA appointment within 30 days the option of seeking private care at the department's expense.
Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Sanders was pleased that the VA was "dealing with the problem head-on."
Joseph A. Violante, legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans, welcomed the VA's move but said he hoped the department didn't send veterans to private clinics "and then forget about them."
He said the VA should "coordinate and manage that care they're getting out in the private sector so that when they do come back into VA, VA knows exactly what care they got out in the private sector."
In fiscal 2013, the VA spent about $4.8 billion, or about one-tenth of its healthcare costs, on private care, often for veterans who live far from VA facilities or veterans in need of care unavailable at a VA facility.