By William Dodd, Class of 2019
The Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014, more commonly known as the Veterans Choice Program, is a U.S. public law that works to expand the number of healthcare options available for eligible veterans. Among many provocations leading up to the creation of the Program, one of the primary driving forces behind enacting the law was the Veterans Health Administration Scandal of 2014, which uncovered years of lies regarding the true wait times for veterans seeking medical care. Along with expanding medical staff and the number of VA facilities, one of the primary provisions of the Choice Program allows veterans living 40 miles or more from a VA clinic, or who are unable to get an appointment within 30 days, to seek treatment from a non-VA facility. In order to accomplish this, the 2014 Choice Program set forth $2 billion altogether, with $500 million specifically intended to increase the number of medical personnel in the VA system. The result of increased healthcare options after years of systematic failure led to an immediate increase in demand for healthcare services. Ultimately, the initial $2 billion proved insufficient to carry the program through to a long-term legislative remedy.
To combat the lack of funding for the popular program, as well as Congress’s failure to enact a timely and suitable long-term remedy, the Trump administration provided $2.1 billion in emergency funding to keep the Choice program alive. However, only weeks after the emergency funding was provided, it became clear that the program may require additional funding to avoid disruption of care for hundreds of thousands of vets. Based on estimates from David Shulkin, VA Secretary, the $2.1 billion in emergency funds will likely run out by mid-December of this year. In addition, Shulkin stated that any additional funding received would be used to bring facilities closer to where veterans live, which would continue to increase access to care for eligible veterans.
While pouring money into the Program may serve as the best option to temporarily meet the immediate demand – generated by years of lack of access to quality care – a long-term legislative fix is the best step to moving forward. As policy director for Concerned Veterans for America, Dan Caldwell, stated, “while Congress must quickly move forward on a temporary fix for the VCP budget shortfall, the Choice Program must ultimately be overhauled, expanded, and permanently reformed.” A long-term plan would likely save money through the creation of a sustainable, organized system to increase access for veterans across the board; however, before any such plan can be enacted, the immediate goal for lawmakers and the Trump administration is to meet to immediate demands of the current crisis.
After speaking with the Trump administration to address the issue of moving forward, Mr. Shulkin has promised to expand the Program during the 2018 year. Pursuant to Mr. Shulkin’s promise, President Trump has proposed an additional $2.9 billion increase in Program funding for the 2018 year, as well as another $3.5 billion in 2019. Along with increased funding projected over the next two years, proposed revisions in the Choice Program seek to eliminate the 30-day or 40-mile eligibility requirements to receive care from non-VA providers. Namely, this process would be done pursuant to the Veterans Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act, a recent proposal from Shulkin. Along with eliminating the aforementioned eligibility requirements, the CARE Act would also include a “health risk assessment,” to be performed by VA personnel, in order to determine which provider – VA or private – will better meet the needs of the veteran-patient. The results of this assessment, as Mr. Caldwell stated, “will incentivize VHA facilities to become higher-performing health care providers through competition.” In Mr. Shulkin’s words, “at minimum, where the VA does not offer a service, veterans will have the choice to receive care in their communities.”
However, the CARE Act has experienced strong pushback from organizations, such as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), on the basis that the CARE Act and similar proposals would “voucherize” VA in favor of private care. In response to this, House VA Committee Chairman, Phil Roe, stated that “this effort is in no way, shape or form intended to create a pipeline to privatize the VA health care system.” Moreover, in Shulkin’s words, “this is about building a VA that veterans choose for their care . . . We want veterans to choose VA.”
Other parties, such as director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at USC, Dana Goldman, hold the exact opposite view. Goldman advocates for the VA’s complete integration into mainstream private healthcare through the provision of Platinum Plans under the ACA, which are required to cover 90% of the cost of all essential health benefits, and often include no co-payments or deductibles. According the Goldman’s estimates, the average annual cost of a Platinum Plan is around $5,000. If such plans were offered to every veteran under the age of 65, based on the $5,000 annual estimate, this plan would drastically reduce the amount paid annually for coverage of individual vets, which is currently around $7,700. Pursuant to Goldman’s reasoning, the cost savings could be directed towards specialized care for individuals with unique health needs, such as those who suffer from traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and infectious diseases.
Currently, due to the organizational, administrative failure within the VA system, in regards to reimbursement within the private sector, many private providers have expressed a lack of interest in treating veteran-patients due to the lack of response, administrative hassle, and delayed payments in dealing with the VA. If Goldman’s plan caught on, the impact on private providers would be substantial. Already, more than 30% of VA appointments are made in the private sector. If complete integration were to ever take place, private providers would receive higher volume and guaranteed federal reimbursement for treating veteran-patients, and the VA could focus its efforts solely on administration and the provision of non-healthcare services. This plan would also eliminate the perpetual conflict in regards to whether veterans are receiving quality care, as well as the shortage of health professionals within the current VA system, as complete integration into private healthcare would offer all veterans an opportunity to seek out the best providers to meet their healthcare needs.
Concerning where to go from here, for current VA attorneys, staff, and providers in the private sector, much will be determined in the coming months as proposals and reform measures continue to be set forth. With the VA system in its current state, proposed remedies range all the way from complete reform to complete integration. Unfortunately, little can be determined as of the current moment, and a wait and see approach is all anyone can do for the time being. As for the veterans in need of care, change cannot wait, and Congress needs to act quickly in order to ensure proper treatment and quality care for those who served and continue to serve our country valiantly.