Aug. 18—Even before the recent enactment of a law expanding veterans’ access to outside healthcare providers, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had significantly increased the use of such providers.

The boost in outside care came in response to a national scandal over extensive waits for care in VA facilities that may have resulted in veterans’ deaths. New VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in an Aug. 13 speech to the American Veterans national convention that in the past two months, the VA has made more than 838,000 referrals for veterans to receive care from private doctors. The increase of 166,000 over the same period last year represents a rise of 25 percent.

The VA calculated that each referral resulted in an average of seven visits or appointments, which totaled 1.1 million additional appointments in the private sector in that time frame.

“Until we get systems up to capacity, we’re expanding our use of private-sector and other non-VA health care to improve access for veterans experiencing excessive wait times,” said McDonald, who had been confirmed only two weeks earlier. “And we’re better monitoring non-VA care to ensure veterans receive the best that they deserve.”

McDonald’s ascension to head the VA followed the resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki amid the widening wait-time scandal. Findings to date include a VA Inspector General report in May that confirmed “significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at” the VA Medical Center in Phoenix.

Law Expands Access

Legislation signed two weeks ago aims to help alleviate such delays while long-term VA fixes are implemented by allocating $10 billion over three years to pay outside hospitals and physicians to provide care for veterans who cannot obtain prompt VA care. The law also provides $5 billion to hire more VA physicians and other clinicians.

The non-VA provider funding will expand the roughly $4.8 billion—or 10 percent of its healthcare budget—that the department spent last year on veterans’ care at non-VA facilities.

Hospital advocates backed the legislation, which included provisions aimed at easing access to care by non-VA providers. For instance, it allows hospitals to contract directly with their local VA facilities rather than having to go through a managed care contractor.

Rich Daly is a senior writer/editor in HFMA’s Washington, D.C., office. Follow Rich on Twitter: @rdalyhealthcare.

Publication Date: Monday, August 18, 2014