VA denying health care choice for veterans, says former VA official

A top former official in the Department of Veterans Affairs says millions of veterans have been denied access to the private-sector care option that Congress overwhelmingly approved in 2018.

“Veterans are being denied the care that they deserve under the MISSION Act,” Darin Selnick said last week.

The MISSION Act enjoyed broad support from Republicans and Democrats when it passed, and it continues to be defended by both parties. The law took effect in 2019 and has allowed more than 3 million veterans to get “community care” when VA is either too far away or for several other reasons, including when it’s in the best medical interest of veterans.

Selnick, a senior adviser to former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, said VA should automatically be referring patients to private care if the wait for VA care is longer than a few weeks. But he said VA was waiting more than 40 days in some cases before referring patients outside VA.

Selnick added that COVID-19 has made the problem worse. He noted that VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters in March that VA was still looking to reschedule more than 19 million appointments that the virus postponed.

McDonough also supported legislation giving VA another $15 billion to deal with the backlog of appointments. Selnick said many of those appointments should have been handled by the private sector, under the MISSION Act, but said VA appears to be seeking this new funding to handle them at VA.

“If you have a wait time of 20 days or 28 days… you’re supposed to be automatically able to go to the community [for local care],” Selnick said. By delaying these referrals, VA is effectively “denying care for veterans all over the country.”

The MISSION Act is the result of a 2014 scandal in which VA was found to be underreporting how long veterans were waiting for care, which prompted Congress to give veterans an option in the private sector. Selnick said VA’s failure to implement the MISSION Act means another wait-time scandal is brewing.

“We’re concerned that this is setting up to be another Phoenix scandal of 2014 – because of wait times, over 200 Veterans died,” he said.

Selnick said the problem was becoming evident toward the end of the Trump administration, but said it has become worse under the Biden administration.

“We’re getting reports all over the country, publicly and privately, that show this is a big problem,” he said. “It’s been a continuing, accelerating trend.”

The MISSION Act was passed under a Republican president, but Democrats have also shown strong support for the law. In February, for example, every senator and congressman from Massachusetts wrote a letter asking why veterans from their state were being forced to receive medical care in other states, and why they weren’t using the MISSION Act to get care from their local doctors.

“One veteran from outside Boston reported being sent to Western Massachusetts for his appointment, a 206-mile and 4-hour round trip,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “This is simply unacceptable and would seem at odds with the MISSION Act, which stipulates that a veteran can receive care closer to their home if the closest VA care is more than a 30-minute drive for standard care and a 60-minute drive for specialty care.”

AUSN Executive Director Jason Beardsley said veterans need to do all they can to make sure community care remains a viable option.

“Defending the health care choice that both parties supported is a key mission for AUSN in the years ahead,” Beardsley said. “We will do all we can in Washington to support this historic change and make sure it works for all those who served this nation.”

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