VA Already Had Systems In Place To Pay For Private Sector Care And Failed To Act To Save Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) already has the systems in place to send veterans to get private sector health treatment but failed to do so at a level that could have saved veterans who died preventable deaths at VA clinics across the country.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced this past weekend that VA “is increasing the care we acquire in the community through non-VA care” as part of a turnaround plan to fix a VA health system that kept secret waiting lists that led to preventable deaths and oversaw preventable veteran deaths at numerous clinics in recent years. “Non-VA care” is the term used for private sector care that veterans receive that is subsidized by VA.

Shinseki made the statement two days after receiving a letter from Republican House Committee on Veterans Affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller urging private sector action and announcing his intent to pass a bill giving private sector options to all veterans forced to wait more than 30 days for care.

“The agency will provide more specifics on these options in the next few days,” said VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon. VA has yet to explain how much more of its budget it will spend on non-VA care, which accounted for approximately 10 percent of its budget, or $4.8 billion, in 2013. Nevertheless, veterans are now reportedly learning for the first time that receiving private care subsidized by VA is even an option for them.

Shinseki’s announcement comes fifteen years after programs were put in place by the Clinton administration authorizing VA subsidization of private emergency care for veterans, and five years after the Bush administration required VA to install an updated program to streamline non-VA care.

“All VA medical centers can use this program when needed. The use of the Non-VA Care program is governed by federal laws containing eligibility criteria and other policies specifying when and why it can be used,” according to the federal Non-VA Medical Care Program Office.

A VA official confirmed last month that the agency had every authority to carry out what later became its private-sector turnaround plan.

“Does VA have every legal authority it needs to pay for veterans whose care is delayed to receive care outside of the VA system?” House Veterans Affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller asked a top VA official at an April 9 hearing in which revelations of the Phoenix VA hospital’s secret waiting list were first disclosed.

“To my knowledge, sir, yes,” replied Thomas Lynch, VA assistant deputy under secretary for health for operations and management,

“So would it be correct to say that failure to deliver care in a timely fashion is simply a question of poor leadership at VA?” Miller asked.

“I think that would be a stretch, sir,” Lynch said. “… I hope that we can identify those circumstances where it may be necessary to send somebody into the private sector. I think we have to use all the resources that we have, sir.”

VA already had in place numerous options to provide veterans with “non-VA care” in the private sector, according to a House Veterans Affairs Committee white paper on non-VA care obtained by The Daily Caller.

VA can provide “fee basis care,” in which the department purchases services from private medical providers on a fee-for-service basis. VA can also use its Patient Centered Community Care Program (PC3), which began to be implemented in October 2013, to outsource medical services through networks of regional contractors.

The Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act of 1999 authorized VA to cover emergency medical costs for veterans a full fifteen years ago. Additionally, the Bush administration’s Veterans’ Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008 required VA to establish the Project ARCH pilot program to subsidize non-VA health costs for veterans.

Follow Patrick on Twitter