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The public can now comment on VA’s proposed rules for expanding private-sector care

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)

Starting Friday, the Department of Veterans Affairs began collecting feedback on its proposed rules to expand veterans’ access to private doctors.

The public has until March 25 to comment on the rules. At that point, the agency could use the feedback to make changes before it implements a new private-sector care system in June.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie unveiled his proposed rules at the end of January – a plan that he said would “revolutionize VA health care as we know it.”

“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,” Wilkie said in a statement at the time, noting President Donald Trump promised veterans more choice about where they receive treatment.

The VA Mission Act, signed by Trump last year, calls for a new community care program to be in place by summer. The law gave the VA secretary broad authority to create new rules for it.

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Under Wilkie’s draft rules, veterans who must drive more than 30 minutes to reach their VA mental health or primary care providers — or wait longer than 20 days for an appointment — would be allowed to use a private doctor.

For specialty care, veterans could go outside the VA for medical treatment if a VA provider was longer than a 60-minute drive away or they faced a 28-day wait.

Veterans could also seek private treatment if the services they need is unavailable at a VA facility, if they live in a state without a full-service VA medical center, if it’s determined to be in their “best medical interest,” or if the VA determines its services in that area don’t meet quality standards.

Since Wilkie announced the rules, some lawmakers and veterans organizations have accused him of a lack of transparency and collaboration. Twelve senators complained Wilkie released the rules “before engaging in meaningful consultation with Congress.”

Democrats are particularly worried the new rules could give veterans unfettered access to private doctors, which they think could erode VA resources.

Adrian Atizado, deputy legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said veterans groups still lacked basic information, such as cost analyses or estimates.

“Part of the concern is there’s not going to be enough information,” Atizado said. “They may have some information, but very little budget justification… It’s like a fortress over there.”

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The VA has fought back against the accusations, claiming the agency was “providing unprecedented transparency.”

The proposed rules were posted to the Federal Register. Comments can be submitted by email at regulations.gov or by mail addressed to the Director of Office of Regulation Policy and Management at the Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Ave., NW, Room 1063B, Washington, DC 20420. Comments can also be faxed to 202-273-9026.

Read the rules of the proposed Veterans Community Care Program here.

Comment on the proposed rule changes here.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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