Veterans will have expanded private health care options under legislation passed by Congress, but some critics contend it could lead to more privatization of VA services.
The measure was part of a sweeping $51 billion VA bill that would institute reforms within the federal agency.
The Senate passed the measure in 92-5 vote this week, which continued funding of the VA Choice program due to be out of money as early as next week. President Donald Trump was expected to sign the bill before Memorial Day.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who backed the legislation, said in a Friday interview in Dayton with this news outlet he heard “spirited” complaints about VA health care in town halls throughout Ohio.
Veterans’ stories about VA health care have “gotten better” since then, but the senator still hears a common complaint.
“The problem I keep hearing about is, look I need to get a specialist in my community. I don’t want to drive from here to Cleveland or here to Cincinnati even. Why can’t I go to somebody here locally?”
The VA legislation will ease that issue with private health care options, he said.
“It says we’re going to help veterans get the care that they need where they want to get it at their convenience,” he said.
The legislation will eliminate the requirement veterans must wait at least 30 days or travel more than 40 miles to qualify for a private health care appointment, according to John W. Palmer, a spokesman with the Ohio Hospital Association in Columbus.
“We believe this is going to create stronger opportunities for access to care,” he said. “From a health care access standpoint, we definitely are equipped to handle patients that are coming in.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and a member of the Senate Veterans Committee, voted for the legislation, but said he opposes any privatization meaures.
“Privatization means putting profits ahead of those who served our country, and I will fight any effort to use America’s veterans to line the pockets of wealthy corporations,” he said in an email. “Instead, we must all work together to strengthen and improve VA to better serve veterans.”
The bill also includes provisions to strengthen the VA workforce and make it easier to hire and retain more medical professionals, said Brown spokeswoman Jenny Donohue. His office said the bill streamlines, but does not expand private health care choices.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, voted for the legislation in the House.
“This bill preserves our commitment to quality of care of veterans at facilities like the Dayton VA, puts the needs of veterans first, and ensures our veterans’ service is honored,” he said in a statement.
The Dayton VA has spent $55 million on private health care for nearly 17,700 veterans authorizations in fiscal year 2018, according to spokesman Ted Froats.
Among changes, the legislation will expand caregiver benefits to veterans who served before Sept. 11, 2001; puts tighter practices on prescribing opioids to VA patients from private providers; and sets up a presidentially appointed commission to review under performing VA facilities for possible closure, among a list of changes. Dozens of veterans service groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, supported the bill.
The American Federal of Government Employees, which represents 260,000 federal VA employees, has had sweeping concerns with the wide-ranging bill.
The labor union says it could lead to outsourcing or the “amputation” of 36 health care specialties, such a primary care or mental health, outside the VA and force veterans into private health care if their VA facility is closed. The legislation would allow unrestricted use of private walk-in clinics and billions of dollars to be taken out of VA health care without federal data on how contractors spend the money, said Marilyn Park, an AFGE legislative assistant.
“We made a promise to veterans when they signed up to serve that they would be taken care of when they got home – not forced to wait in longer lines at private, walk-in clinics,” AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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