A budget shortfall has caused the Veteran’s Administration (VA) to stop referring patients to outside hospitals in at least one region, keeping thousands of veterans on waiting lists.
According to a memo from the region called Veterans Integrated Services Network (VISN) 9 — covering VA hospitals in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia — the entire region has been forced to stop all “non-VA care” referrals due to a budget shortfall.
“We have no Non-VA Care funds available and cannot over-commit. We have a shortfall of general operating funds,” the memo obtained by The Daily Caller reads.
“We must change our current referral practices immediately to ensure we are able to maintain our ability to provide critical care,” the memo continues. “The practice of referring to NVCC for Access/Wait Time reduction reasons is not allowed until further notice from the Network.”
Sandra Glover, public affairs officer for VISN 9, didn’t respond to an email for comment.
Non-VA care referrals are one of several programs the VA has to get veterans care in hospitals outside the VA if there is backlog at their VA hospital.
“Non-VA care is usually provided when: the needed clinical service cannot be provided by a VA facility and the veteran patient cannot be transferred to another VA facility; VA cannot recruit a needed clinician; a veteran cannot access a VA facility due to geographic inaccessibility; there is an emergent situation where delays in care could result in a life-threatening situation; or, to meet patient wait-time standards,” said a source at the House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC).
The directive comes at a time when the most recent numbers analyzed by TheDC show thousands of veterans on electronic wait lists all throughout the six hospitals which comprise the VISN 9.
There are 22,911 patients all throughout VISN 9 who have been waiting more than 90 days for an appointment with the Tennessee Valley VA Medical Center in Nashville, leading the way with 13,223 patients waiting more than 90 days for service.
A call to the Tennessee Valley VA Medical Center office of public affairs was left unreturned.
At the Memphis VA, where 3,540 veterans have been waiting more than 120 days for an appointment, the Memphis VA’s public affairs officer, Willie Logan, said that the majority, 3,187, have been added to an alternative program called the Veteran’s Choice Program, which was created and funded in the highly publicized Veterans Access, Choice, Accountability Act (VACAA) of 2014.
But the Veteran’s Choice Program has been fraught with problems, including a slow rollout and recent disclosures that money earmarked for the program was going to pay for hepatitis C vaccines and to pay for some of the extra costs in the construction debacle for the new VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado, not scheduled to open until 2017.
HVAC Chairman Jeff Miller estimated that about $150 million from the Veteran’s Choice Program has been diverted to pay for the Aurora construction project at a recent HVAC hearing.
“It is thoroughly confusing,” Sloan Gibson, Deputy Secretary of the VA, said of the Choice program at the same hearing.
Furthermore, the same VISN 9 memo listed numerous procedures not covered by the Choice program, including dental care, pediatric care, hospice care, nursing home care, and dialysis.
It appears VISN 9 reflects problems nationwide, as the VA recently shocked lawmakers by disclosing that the VA was facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall, citing non-VA care and increased costs for Hepatitis C as the main drivers.
An email to Meagan Lutz, a press person in VA’s central office, asking if the issues facing VISN 9 reflected problems across the country was left unreturned.
Gibson, along with several VA colleagues, testified in front of the HVAC on the budget shortfall on June 25 and cited an increase in patients looking for care as the main driver of the shortfall.
The VA, in a fact sheet as well as a statement provided to media, backed up Gibson’s assertion.
“More Veterans are coming to VA for care, and those that currently use VA for care are increasing their opportunities to receive care. For the 12-month period ending in April 2015, VA experienced a 10.5 percent increase in workload,” according to the statement.
A source at HVAC said the committee has not had a chance to vet the VA’s numbers for accuracy yet.