The House Veterans Affairs Committee will soon vote on bipartisan legislation to give veterans the option to seek private-sector medical care if the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to provide a patient with an adequate health care team.
Committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.), who introduced the bill last week, told the Washington Free Beacon lawmakers will vote on the measure as soon as the Congressional Budget Office releases a cost projection for the program. The committee was initially set to vote on the legislation on Wednesday.
The bill would overhaul the Veterans Choice Program created by Congress in response to a 2014 scandal over manipulated wait times at federal facilities that led to the deaths of dozens of veterans. The program was intended to temporarily provide veterans with greater flexibility to visit care providers outside of the VA's network of health care facilities.
Roe's bill would set up a permanent network of private sector providers established in each of the nearly two dozen VA regions, where veterans could seek care if the agency cannot offer it.
The legislation would also assign every veteran enrolled in VA coverage a primary physician, who would be responsible for all medical needs and have the authority to refer patients to specialists both within the federal network or outside to private sector practices.
"I've said this from day one: The way to make the VA better is to make the VA compete and put veterans in charge of health care decisions," Roe said. "Just like we do in the private sector, if I don't like my particular primary care doctor I can change. Veterans can do the same thing. That's what I was really shooting for—to put some power in the veterans hands so the veteran and doctor can be making those decisions, not the VA bureaucrats, and that's exactly what I think we've got with this bill."
Under the legislation, the department would determine whether a veteran could be referred to the private sector by assessing whether a patient faces an "excessive burden" in accessing VA medical care. This would apply to veterans who, for example, live in rural areas and don't have access to a nearby facility or are unable to travel because of a medical condition. Veterans could also seek medical care outside of the VA system if they believe they are receiving poor care.
The VA would negotiate medical rates with private sector providers and reimburse those facilities at rates equal to or less than what Medicare would cover.
The bill, which has the unanimous backing of the House VA committee's 23 members, would strike distance and time restrictions on a veterans' ability to seek private-sector care. Roe said this enables veterans and their VA physicians to determine the best path forward without arbitrary constraints.
The legislation has received mixed feedback from veterans' advocacy groups.
The American Legion backed the bill, writing in a statement the measure "will allow the department to provide greater access and develop stronger relationships with non-VA providers, ultimately moving toward a more integrated system with the veteran at the core."
Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative nonprofit based in D.C., said the legislation has "some positive reforms" but ultimately "falls short of delivering real health care choice to our veterans."