November 10, 2016
WASHINGTON—Congressman Doug Collins, an Air Force Reserve Chaplain and Representative of Georgia’s Ninth District, has written a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding veterans’ access to quality health care through the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act. The full letter is below:
The Honorable Robert A. McDonald Secretary
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW, Room 1000
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary McDonald,
I am writing to request that you review policies regarding the implementation of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act (“Choice Act”), specifically those related to employee training and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) management of the Choice program. I am concerned that certain requirements of the VA Choice program are being exploited by the VA to deny veterans the expedited quality care they were promised and deserve.
A recent news report highlighted the Choice program’s backlog of 150,000 veterans who have been approved to see private specialist doctors but have not yet received treatment, as well as certain VA contractors’ refusal to schedule appointments for eligible veterans. This same news source mentioned that appointments by at least one contractor are supposed to be scheduled within five to seven days, but this is not happening. Currently, 50,000 veterans have been waiting more than three months for appointments and more than 90,000 veterans have been waiting longer than one month. Disturbingly, the report noted that real wait times might be even longer than this because the VA is engaging in certain misleading practices that appear to reset or artificially shorten veterans’ wait times.
Because veterans remain on both a VA and a non-VA waiting list until a private appointment is scheduled, in some areas there are now more veterans waiting to see a private doctor than a VA specialist. The intent of the Choice program was to provide timely, high-quality healthcare for veterans by granting them access to non-VA healthcare facilities. Now, however, it appears that the VA is acting contrary to the intended purpose of the Choice program and instead penalizing those seeking non-VA care by forcing them to wait longer for care after opting into the Choice program than if they had continued pursuing care through the VA system.
Furthermore, I am concerned that several VA facilities in Georgia have been designated as having “no capacity” and therefore unable to enroll additional veterans as patients. The VA clinics in Atlanta, Austell, Blairsville, Lawrenceville, Newnan, and Stockbridge have all received this classification. This term is not defined in statute and conversations with local VA providers to resolve questions about this designation have failed to clarify its meaning. It still remains unclear what a “no capacity” designation means, what happens when a facility is designated as such, and whether or not veterans living within a 40-mile radius of a VA facility designated as “no capacity” are to be classified as instantaneously eligible for the Choice program as a result. As the United States’ veteran population ages and troops return from overseas, it is essential that veterans have access to medical facilities with the capacity and capability of addressing their health needs, regardless of whether they are run by the public or private sector.
In order to address these concerns, I ask that you please respond to the following questions:
1) Why do reports continue to persist that VA contractors are refusing to schedule appointments for veterans eligible for the VA Choice program? Have actions been taken to rectify this problem, and if not, why not? If so, please provide a detailed explanation.
2) Are veterans who are seeking private care being penalized for doing so?
3) What are you doing to ensure that the 150,000 veterans awaiting appointments gain access to necessary medical treatment in a timely manner?
4) What does it mean for a VA facility to be designated “no capacity?” Who makes this determination and what methodology is used in making this determination? Are veterans still eligible to enroll and receive care at nearby facilities that are “no capacity?” What is done to address a “no capacity” situation?
5) If a veteran lives within 40 miles driving distance of a VA facility considered “no capacity,” are they then eligible for the Choice program under the “excessive travel burdens” eligibility criterion? Are they eligible under other provisions of Choice?
Member of Congress