Veterans seeking out primary and mental health care will be able to choose a health care provider outside of the department if they live at least a half-hour away from the nearest VA hospital or clinic, the VA announced Wednesday. For specialty care, the VA is proposing an hour average drive time.
Likewise, the same logic applies to veterans who are facing a wait of 20 days to get an appointment for most specialties.
The new proposed guidelines are likely to go into effect in June.
“Our medical services must meet our veterans’ needs and reinforce the trust that forms the basis of every interaction with VA,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement.
“Most Americans can already choose the health care providers that they trust, and President Trump promised that Veterans would be able to do the same. With VA’s new access standards, the future of the VA health care system will lie in the hands of Veterans – exactly where it should be.”
For veterans looking to receive urgent care outside of the VA system, they’ll be able to select a provider in VA’s community care network and may be charged a co-payment.
The changes are in response to legislation Congress passed last year that gives VA the power to make changes to how veterans receive health care outside of the agency.
Where it stands now, veterans must live at least 40-miles from their nearest VA facility to use community care. By focusing on drive time opposed to distance, both rural veterans and those who live in big cities with congested traffic stand to benefit.
“These standards are simple and straightforward, eliminating much of the confusion created by the Veterans Choice Program and the VA’s other community care programs,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director for Concerned Veterans of America.
“While we would prefer the primary care wait time standard be shorter, these access standards are still a significant step forward in giving veterans more control over their health care and making the VA more veteran-centric.”
Both lawmakers and veterans organizations have said VA's engagement on access standards is something to be desired, and these proposed guidelines are just the beginning of what is sure to be a debate on how the agency provides and expands community care.
“It is important that the VA collaborates with all stakeholders on this important issue to ensure that the VA remains the coordinator of care and that VA-enrolled veterans do not have to pay for treatment," said Rene Bardorf, Wounded Warrior Project's senior vice president of government and community relations.
"We are encouraged by the mental health provisions expressed, and look forward to more detailed information on access standards - especially on the data and science behind the selected wait times and distance-to-care criteria."
Reactions on the House Veterans Affairs' Committee falls along party lines. Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) called VA's announcement "hastily" rolled out and warned against the potential for "shifting money towards care outside VA without involving providers" veterans groups and Congress.
"Developing access standards in the dark of night and placing decisions in the hands of bureaucrats instead of in the hands of veterans and their doctors is at best disappointing, and at worst, shameful," said Takano.
However, leadership on the Republican sides of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees issues a joint statement praising the VA for implementing key guidelines of the VA MISSION Act.
"This landmark law ensures veterans get care when and where they need it, whether that is in the VA or in the community," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
"We believe these new standards will enable veterans to receive care that best fits their individual needs while making the VA healthcare system stronger."