Local veteran leaders are worried a proposal to shift billions of dollars away from VA hospitals and into private health care will adversely affect their health and the health of the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The New York Times reported last weekend that the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to shift billions of dollars away from veterans hospitals and into the private health care sector. The change would come from new rules the department will propose to carry out the Mission Act, passed by Congress last year.
Proponents of increased privatization, including many congressional Republicans and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, believe the privatization plan will enable veterans to obtain health care more quickly and offer them more choices. Opponents, including many congressional Democrats and most of the major veterans’ organizations across the country, say the plan could effectively gut the VA system and force some hospitals to close.
Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill and past president Jim Little said previous efforts to push veterans into the private sector for care haven’t gone well, and this one won’t either. But the new interim director at the Roseburg VA, Kevin Forrest, believes there’s reason for optimism that veterans will ultimately be well served by the program.
Hill said the new plan would force cutbacks within the VA. If fewer patients visit the hospital because more are visiting private doctors, the national VA system will send less money to the Roseburg VA and staff will be reduced, he said.
“This is a direct threat to what we were promised with our VA facility, a complete direct threat. Period. No ifs, ands or buts. Full frontal assault,” he said.
He said it would also create problems for everyone trying to access private doctors in rural places like Douglas County.
“They think it will benefit the rural areas. I don’t really believe so. Everything will be jammed up and slowed down,” he said.
Hill said the right approach would be to put more money into VA facilities so they can hire additional doctors.
Little said he’s not optimistic about the proposed Mission Act rules either. He believes dumping a bunch of veterans onto the private health care system would overwhelm it.
Prior to the Mission Act, the Choice Act passed in 2014 provided veterans could seek care from private doctors if they were unable to get appointments within 30 days. Under the new guidelines that time frame could drop significantly, approaching the seven-day maximum wait that’s the rule for active duty military service members.
One reason Little is skeptical of the Mission Act is he doesn’t feel the Choice program has succeeded at its mission.
“It just didn’t work. People would try to apply for it and it seemed like you had to jump through so many hoops to get approval you might as well have gotten help at the VA as long as you had to wait,” he said.
Also, he said he and other veterans prefer to get their care from the VA.
“When we walk through the doors we at least know the majority of the people understand veterans and their unique health needs,” he said.
Forrest, on the other hand, said he is optimistic that over time the VA will learn what works well for massive community care programs like Choice and the Mission Act.
He said the VA is still waiting for final guidance to come out for the Mission Act. When it does, he said, the Office of Community Care will be ready to help veterans get care whenever and wherever they need it.
Forrest, who is himself an Army veteran, said down the road he expects veterans will see the Mission Act as a “program that really serves veterans well and works smoothly” and that has “a big network of providers that help provide that care.”
“But it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.
He doesn’t think the program will ultimately pull too much money away from VA hospitals.
“I think that the real driver will be where do veterans want to get their care. Many veterans state they want to get their care at the VA,” he said.
As long as that’s what they want, he said, “those resources will be at the VA to take care of them.”
The national VA's Office of Media Relations issued a statement Tuesday disputing the New York Times article.
"Privatization is a myth and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding veterans' health care. We can't confirm the New York Times' reporting," it said.
"The Mission Act, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and the strong backing of Veterans Service Organizations, gives the VA secretary the authority to set access standards that provide veterans the best and most timely care possible — whether at VA or with community providers — and the department is committed to doing just that.
"Consistent with that law, Secretary Wilkie is reviewing a variety of access standard models, but no final decisions have been made. As Secretary Wilkie said in a recent congressional hearing, he will brief members of Congress on access standards once they are finalized."