Veterans reading only headlines, hearing only sound bites, might have a few misconceptions about how Congress and the VA plan to use non-VA healthcare providers to ensure more timely and convenient access to care. A magical sounding item called a “Veteran’s Choice Card,” for example, won’t be a limitless credit card given qualified veterans to cover whatever health services they receive from whatever physician they use.
And veterans not already enrolled in VA health care won’t gain accelerated access to outside care as promised by the legislation – unless they serve in areas of combat operations within five years of enrollment. The centerpiece of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of (H.R.3230) is a special $10 billion Veterans Choice Fund.
Over the next three years, VA is to use the fund as needed to buy care from non-VA care providers for veterans if they face long waits for VA care – defined initially as more than 30 days – or if they reside more than 40 miles from VA care. The intent is to eliminate VA patient wait lists that some VA health administrators and staff conspired to hide in recent years, thus compromising the integrity of performance reports and putting patients’ health at risk. VA leaders and veteran service organizations prefer to attack wait times through improved resourcing.
They want VA spending raised to meet actual patient demand from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the expansion of diseases presumed caused by defoliants used in Vietnam, and from higher costs of caring for aging veterans. So H.R.3230 also authorizes VA to spend $5 billion more to expand its own capacity to deliver care, by hiring more medical and support staff and also building and leasing more space.
House-Senate conferees, in shaping the final bill, categorized the Choice Fund as emergency money so the $10 billion gets added to the nation’s debt but not to VA budgets. The $5 billion for more VA-delivered care is to be paid through cuts elsewhere in VA, including executive bonuses and by deferring planned rate cuts for some types of VA home loans. The legislation mandates use of a new Veteran’s Choice Card but it isn’t a golden key to private sector care.
It will be more like an informational insurance card to be presented to non-VA health care providers to identify the veteran and to verify eligibility for episodes of care that, sometime earlier, were arranged through and approved by a VA care coordinator. The administrative challenges ahead for VA in coordinating a vast expansion of private sector care, monitoring outside care quality and integrating those medical records back into VA health care will be profound. But the bill is said to set aside only $300 million for these added tasks.