Author: Todd Tuten

House Holds Hearing on Veterans Choice Program

The House VA Committee hearing started at 7:30 p.m., but it was well-attended and lasted until 10 p.m. The witnesses included Senator John McCain (R-AZ), VA Secretary David Shulkin, and representatives of the VA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office. Senator McCain and Secretary Shulkin were both warmly welcomed by Members of the Committee on a bipartisan basis.

Chairman Roe (R-TN) emphasized the need to act quickly to extend the authorization for the Veterans Choice Program, which expires on August 7. To that end, the House VA Committee is voting today on a bill to eliminate the sunset of the program’s authorization. In addition, the Committee will consider broader legislation later this year to make comprehensive reforms to the Choice Program. He noted that the VA has additional funds available but will not be able to spend them once the authorization expires. A copy of Chairman Roe’s opening statement is available here.

Secretary Shulkin testified in support of extending the Choice Program, and he clarified that the VA was not seeking additional funding – just the authority to spend funds already obligated. He noted that the VA already is being forced to deny Choice Program coverage to veterans whose episodes of care would extend beyond the August 7 expiration date (e.g., pregnancy).

Secretary Shulkin also urged Congress to support the VA’s efforts to bring appointment scheduling in-house for care coordination purposes. However, the VA OIG witness noted challenges in records going out to community-based providers and coming back to the VA. The GAO witness also underscored the need for the VA to have better systems in place in order to effectively coordinate care, which will take time to procure and implement. Rep. Brownley (D-CA) echoed that point, calling the VA’s information technology systems a “Model T in a Tesla world.” Rep. Esty (D-CT) also urged improvements in the VA’s information systems and expressed concern that veterans are being improperly billed.

Other Members, including Rep. Wenstrup (R-OH) and Rep. Poliquin (R-ME), raised concerns about continuing delays in the processing of claims and payments to providers. Secretary Shulkin agreed that providers deserve to be paid for their services, noting his own experience as a physician in the private sector. He acknowledged that the VA is not processing enough claims electronically today, and he advised that he plans to pursue options outside the VA for systems procurement going forward.

Many Members also raised serious concerns about treatment of PTSD and mental health conditions for veterans, including Rep. Wenstrup (R-OH), Rep. O’Rourke (D-TX), Rep. Sablan (D-MP), Rep. Banks (R-IN), Rep. Rutherford (R-FL) and Rep. Takano (D-CA). Rep. O’Rourke emphasized that suicide among veterans is the most serious crisis, and Secretary Shulkin agreed that it is his number one priority. The Secretary announced that the VA will begin providing urgent mental health care that also will include individuals other than those service members who were honorably discharged. He added that the VA needs 1,000 more mental health providers, as well as telemental health services, and is looking to expand community partnerships to address suicide.

Rep. Banks noted interest among Indiana veterans in greater access to alternative treatments for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Secretary Shulkin underscored that he is “most concerned about areas like PTSD, where we do not have effective treatments.” He also advised that the VA has established an “Office of Compassionate Innovation” (separate from the VA’s Center for Innovation), which will focus on finding new approaches to health and physical wellness and explore alternative treatment options for veterans when traditional methods fall short.

Rep. Wenstrup inquired about the VA’s GME and residency programs, as well as its associations with academic institutions. Secretary Shulkin responded that the VA is “doubling down” on partnerships with academic medical institutions.

Chairman Roe concluded his remarks by emphasizing the need to extend the Choice Program authorization soon and to consolidate the VA’s community-based care programs. He also expressed support for the VA’s decision to stop developing its own information technology internally.

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Update: House & Senate Approve Veterans Health Care Choice Act

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve H.R. 3236, the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act. Update 2:16 p.m. on July 30: The Senate approved the legislation today, and it is now headed to the President’s desk for signature.

Among its provisions, the bill would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to use $3.3 billion from the Veterans Choice Fund to pay for care provided to veterans by non-VA providers between May 1 and October 1, 2015 under the VA’s community care programs.

H.R. 3236 also would require the VA to develop a plan to consolidate all non-VA programs into a single “Veterans Choice Program” and to submit a report on the plan to Congress by November 1, 2015. Among its provisions, the plan must include the structuring of the billing and reimbursement process; a description of the reimbursement rate to be paid; and an explanation of the processes to be used to ensure that the Secretary will fully comply with the federal Prompt Payment Act.

Further, H.R. 3236 would make a number of changes to the current Veterans Choice Program, including: eliminating the requirement that a veteran be enrolled in the VA health care system by Aug. 1, 2014 in order to participate; allowing the VA to expand the number of non-VA providers that may offer medical services; waiving the program’s wait-time eligibility threshold if clinically necessary for the veteran; and allowing veterans residing within 40 driving miles of a VA medical facility to use non-VA services if the VA facility does not have a full-time physician on staff.

M. Todd Tuten is a Senior Policy Advisor at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP.