Merkley, Wyden push VA Secretary Wilkie to protect veterans’ health care as new program goes into effect

Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden today pressed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie to not repeat the same mistakes of the Veterans Choice Program when establishing the new Veterans Community Care Program.

Congress passed the VA MISSION Act in 2018 to strengthen VA Community Care programming, after critical issues within the Veterans Choice Program jeopardized the quality of veterans’ care.

“We believe strongly that veterans should spend their time getting good health care rather than driving to it, especially in states like Oregon where many veterans living in rural areas are underserved,” the Senators wrote. “VA facilities in our state and across the nation have decades of experience serving veterans and offer unmatched specialty care and services; even so, special interests continue their relentless push to outsource or privatize aspects of veterans care.”

“We implore you to implement the VA MISSION Act based on the principle that community care must never come at the expense of VA’s core functions,” they concluded.

The Senators are seeking assurance that mistakes made during previous VA program launches do not repeat themselves as the agency works to improve Community Care—especially after hearing reports that the VA has been slow to share guidance and information about the program launch, echoing similar problems from when the Choice Program was rolled out.

The Government Accountability Office released a report two months ago identifying three fundamental problems with the Veterans Choice Program—complex referral and appointment scheduling processes, incomplete and unreliable data on the timeliness of veterans’ access to care, and a lack of timely payments to community providers.

The Senators requested answers to the following questions regarding the VA’s decisions throughout the process of the Veterans Community Care Program rollout by the end of this month:

    • What problems did the VA identify from its experience with the Choice Program, and what is the VA doing to ensure those same problems do not arise again under the VA MISSION Act?

• When did the VA first provide information and guidance on the new law to VA Health Care Systems in Oregon and Idaho?

• What steps has the VA taken to ensure community providers understand billing practices and procedures under the VA MISSION Act?

• What steps has the VA taken to ensure community providers will receive timely payments under the new law?

• When will the VA establish contracts with community providers under the Community Care Network and provide lists of in-network providers to veterans?