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Smith & Anderson: How VA health care can recover from COVID-19

A medical center run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the DOD. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

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Scott Owens was in pain.

An Army veteran living in Winter Haven, Florida, he recently received a call from a doctor’s office — one he had not visited before — informing him that community care referrals were canceled for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Owens had been getting treatment through the Veterans Affairs Department’s community care program, launched in 2019 under the VA MISSION Act, which expanded opportunities for vets to access care outside the VA system.

He already couldn’t get the care he needed at the VA facility closest to his home, so had opted for community care. Now that care was shut off indefinitely.

Like Owens, health care is a priority for us. We’re both Army veterans, each with our own service-connected issues. But we believe veterans’ care is also a priority for all Americans, who value the sacrifices made by service members and our families.

Since the VA MISSION Act became law just over two years ago, the Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have worked to roll out community care. Progress was being made. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the roll out ground to a halt.

The VA’s shutdown has created multiple backlogs. That’s much more than just a paperwork problem. Every canceled appointment, every delayed exam represents a veteran who has earned VA care and can’t get it.

For a veteran who needs an exam to assess whether he or she has a disability eligible for disability compensation, or because an existing medical condition needs treatment, it means unnecessary pain. It means pointless waiting. And for some, it means financial hardship.

None of that will change until exams are available in a timely manner. Right now, timely is not looking likely.

The backlog for those seeking compensation or pension exams has more than doubled during the pandemic, up  from about 71,000 in early March to over 168,000 now.

Delays like these are unacceptable for those who sacrificed so much.

Even with the VA now in the early stages of reopening access to exams, the backlog is likely to grow. Services are still limited at many VA facilities, and the community care program remains restricted as well.

The VA must move now to lift all remaining restrictions on community care guaranteed under the MISSION Act. The VA reopening plan is a start, but it still needs a great deal of work to become a clear and effective way to provide veterans the quality care and timely access they have earned.

As they transition back to normal operations over the coming months, providers on both sides of the system will face pent-up demand for appointments and care. Steps the Veterans Health Administration could take include:

  • Clarify for patients and providers when and how the phased reopening will be implemented. For example, when will veterans be able receive routine and elective care at both facilities and community providers?
  • Develop a scorecard to track progress and post it on the VHA website.
  • Outline specifically how the backlog of appointments will be quickly reduced.
  • Expedite payments to all vendors and suppliers who signed onto the VHA’s expanded telehealth services, to keep the supply chain intact and make it possible to expand those services even more.
  • Approve all community care requests immediately to eliminate the growing backlog.

The MISSION Act expanded veterans right to choose community care. That right did not disappear because of the pandemic, and VA should not take the decision for accessing community care out of their hands.

Instead, VA should educate veterans about all their options and help them make good health care decisions. That would help veterans get the care they’ve earned and would help the VA be better prepared to respond to the next pandemic.

Jimmie T. Smith is coalitions director of Concerned Veterans for America-Florida. Nate Anderson is executive director of Concerned Veterans for America and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.