- President Trump has signed the VA Mission Act into law, cementing the agency’s plans to overhaul the Veterans Choice Program and other community health programs across the country.
The $5.2 billion legislation is part of the Administration’s efforts to support the VA and veterans, Trump said in a statement announcing the bill’s passage into law.
“In every generation there have been heroes like them, patriots who answer the call to serve, who do whatever it takes, wherever and whenever we need them to defend America,” the President said. “They put everything on the line for us. And when they come home, we must do everything that we can possibly do for them. And that's what we're doing.”
The new law, first sponsored by both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairmen Representative Phil Roe and Senator Johnny Isakson, specifically aims to put the veteran back in the center of her own healthcare.
Foremost, the law funds and updates the Veterans Choice Program, which connects veterans to third-party treatment outside of the VA when VA care would otherwise be unattainable or exceed a 30-day wait period.
In previous months, critics and other healthcare stakeholders have called for improvements to the Veterans Choice Program, citing enrollment errors, exceptionally long wait times, and a convoluted referral process that hinders patient access to care.
Updates now mandated by law get rid of certain parameters patients must meet to participate in the Choice Program. Additionally, it gets rid of some administrative properties tied to the referral process, ideally reducing the time patients must wait between VA referral and connecting with a third-party clinician.
The bill appropriates funding for the Veterans Choice Program to prevent the program from expiration, which had been slated for the end of June, according to previous statements from former Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. This newest round of funding will allow the program to run until VA finalizes updates to the newly-minted Veterans Community Care Program.
Offering these third-party healthcare options is essential to serving veterans, President Trump said upon signing the bill into law.
“If the VA can’t meet the needs of a veteran in a timely manner, that veteran will have the right to go right outside to a private doctor,” the President said. “So simple and yet so complex.”
The law also streamlines the VA’s multiple community health programs into one. Additionally, the law will extend caregiver access to veterans who served prior to 9/11; previous to the law, the caregiver programs only applied to post-9/11 veterans.
The bill’s passage into law is a part of Congress’ efforts to do right by the nation’s veterans, according to Isakson, the Senate bill sponsor.
“We owe our veterans the best possible care and support that they have earned,” Isakson said in a statement. “This is a truly meaningful victory for our nation’s veterans, who will benefit from more choice and fewer barriers to care. The signing of this legislation marks the completion of the final piece in a great mosaic of veterans reforms that we set out to accomplish over the last two years.”
Bill co-sponsor Jon Tester (D-Montana) praised the law for stripping away bureaucratic hurdles that many say keep veterans from accessing healthcare.
"Montana veterans deserve more than a thank you - they deserve a health care system that works for them, whether it's at a VA clinic or a local community doctor," said Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "Our historic law gets rid of the government bureaucracy that has stood between Montana veterans and their health care."
The Veterans Choice Program originated in response to the VA wait time scandal during which VA leaders falsified wait times. The Choice Program aimed to connect veterans with healthcare when those veterans face wait times longer than 30 days, extraordinary travel distances, or limited care options at their VA medical centers.
However, the Choice Program has faced its own set of obstacles. A 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation found that the Choice Program still yielded long wait times for patients, partly because of the complex process by which patients must be referred to non-VA providers.
Program participants were waiting up to 81 days to see a clinician, the report found.
The MISSION Act, aimed to alleviate those and many other VA care access issues, first passed the House and then the Senate in May.