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VA Secretary Urges Congress to Improve Veterans Choice Program

The Acting VA Secretary says the Veterans Choice Program is integral to supporting better patient access to care.

veterans choice program patient access to care

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- The Acting Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie has called on Congress to vote on a revised version of the Veterans Choice Program targeted at improving patient access to care.

Veterans Choice, which was enacted four years ago following the wait time scandal at the Phoenix, Arizona, VA, allows veterans facing extraordinary barriers to healthcare access to visit a third-party healthcare provider.

Veterans facing long travel distances, travel barriers, a wait time of over 30 days, or who need a procedure not offered in a VA facility may notify the VA of their needs. The VA will help arrange for that veteran to receive the same care at a non-VA hospital.

However, the Choice Program has faced numerous hurdles since its inception in 2014. A March 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed that veterans participating in the Choice Program face wait times of up to 81 days, far exceeding the 30-day threshold the agency says it upholds in treatment access cases.

A complex approval process – which includes vetting from VA and third-party providers – makes for the long wait period, GAO found.

The Choice Program has also long faced the threat of expiration. Congress has since had to extend funding for the program twice as policymakers and other stakeholders prepared to revamp the program.

The time is now for a better version of the Veterans Choice Program to reach Congress to pass, Wilkie said in a statement.

“It’s time to fix the Choice Program – as well as the department’s other non-VA care efforts – once and for all by merging them into a single, streamlined community care program that’s easy to use for Veterans and VA employees,” Wilkie explained. “America’s Veterans are looking to Congress and VA to come together now to provide them the best possible solutions for their care. Your VA will be working overtime to achieve the promise of leaving no veteran waiting for care.”

Earlier this year, the VA sent draft legislation to Congress that included overhauls to the Veterans Choice Program. The proposed draft got rid of the 30-day wait period and 40-mile travel requirements from the program, among other things.

The Veterans Coordinated Access & Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act sought to streamline the Choice Program and instill a foundational commitment to wellness.

The CARE Act also scrapped previous Choice Program requirements in order to put more control into the hands of the patient and provider. For example, the onus should be on the patient and provider whether the patient needs to access care outside of the VA.

The CARE Act included protocol that would make it easier for veterans to access care, including strengthening the Community Care program and implementing walk-in clinics for minor treatment needs.

“We want Veterans to work with their VA physicians to make informed decisions that are best for their clinical needs, whether in the VA or in the community, and this bill does just that, while strengthening VA services at the same time,” then-VA Secretary David J. Shulkin, MD, said in a public statement about the bill.

This move from Wilkie comes on the heels of leadership upheaval at the VA. In late March, Shulkin left the VA – there are conflicting reports as to whether President Trump fired the Secretary or if Shulkin left on his own accord.

Shulkin’s exit has called into question numerous programs at the VA. The department has been working with Cerner Corporation for its EHR implementation. Now, that contract hangs in the balance. Additionally, rumors about Shulkin’s resistance to privatizing the VA could complicate the fate of the Veteran’s Choice Program.

The Choice Program has previously faced pushback because some have viewed it as a slippery slope towards VA privatization. With Wilkie’s current post as Acting Secretary, it is uncertain how certain VA overhaul decisions will pan out.

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