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VA secretary predicts controversy over upcoming change to private-sector care program

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during a press briefing at the White House on May 17, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie announced Monday that he will unveil new rules this week stipulating when veterans will be allowed to access private-sector medical care – a plan that he said would “revolutionize” the VA health system.

The change is part of the VA Mission Act, a major reform bill that President Donald Trump has lauded as a means to give veterans more choice about where to receive health care. The law instructs the VA secretary to create the new rules for private-sector care, with the potential to shift billions of dollars for veterans’ care to private medical facilities.

Wilkie pre-empted the public release of the rules with a warning Monday that they would likely spark controversy.

“Although these new standards represent an important win for America’s veterans, they will not be without controversy,” Wilkie said in a statement. “Some will claim falsely and predictably that they represent a first step toward privatizing the department.”

The Mission Act was a bipartisan compromise passed last year with the support of major veterans organizations. Since then, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have spoken out about what they viewed as a lack of transparency from the VA regarding the new access rules. Veterans groups said they were concerned about the lack of collaboration.

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On Wednesday, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss their 2019 policy priorities. Their one “critical” issue was to ensure the VA “fully and faithfully” implement the Mission Act.

“How these standards are set, how wide an aperture of choice, will have a critical impact on the costs of the new veterans’ community care program, and therefore – with limited resources – whether there’s an impact on VA care,” said Peter Dickinson, senior executive adviser with DAV. “This is a critical time.”

One of the key principles that the groups are pushing for is to ensure the VA remains the coordinator of veterans’ care, rather than allowing veterans unfettered access to the private sector — a move they worry could strip resources from the VA health care system.

Though Wilkie didn’t provide details Monday, he said: “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.”

“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,” he added.

One group that has gained influence in Washington under Trump’s administration has pushed for an aggressive expansion of veterans’ care to private facilities.

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, wants a system that “puts the veteran first and not the VA bureaucracy,” said CVA Executive Director Dan Caldwell.

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Like Wilkie, Caldwell predicted a fight about the new private-sector care rules.

“To be very honest, I think there’s going to be some disagreement there,” he said.

In his statement, Wilkie attempted to alleviate concerns about privatization, insisting veterans would continue to choose VA health care when afforded other options.

The Mission Act upends the Veterans Choice Program, which was created in response to the 2014 VA wait-time scandal. There was widespread consensus among veterans and lawmakers that the rules of the Choice program were too rigid – it allows veterans into the private sector only when they live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility or it is estimated their wait for a VA appointment is longer than 30 days.

Under the law, the new rules are supposed to be finalized in March before the new community care program is established in June. Wilkie didn’t say Monday what day he would release the new access standards.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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