VA secretary grilled over implementation of VA Mission Act

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie testified on the implementation of the Mission Act before the Senate and House Committees on Veterans’ Affairs in a joint hearing Dec. 19. The law requires VA to consolidate community care programs into a single, streamlined service, ultimately giving veterans more control over their medical care.

The fast-approaching deadline overhauling and expanding the community care program has lawmakers concerned that they could see a repeat of problems prevalent under the Veterans Choice Program — the program that the Mission Act is set to replace. The Choice Program was intended to curb wait times for veterans seeking VA care, but many still ended up with longer wait times than permitted by law.

“The department, I admit, was taken advantage of because of the hasty nature that took place when the (Choice) program was put together,” Wilkie testified. “We were forced to take what we could get to implement a law based on the timeline created by that act,” he added, addressing a recent report that the companies contracted to run the program took nearly $2 billion in fees.

“This is why it’s so vitally important that the Mission Act, which will guide future coordination of care, be executed efficiently and thoughtfully,” said House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.”

Jon Tester, D-Mont., Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs ranking member, told VA officials, “We need to know what you’re doing and how much it is going to cost. No conflicting or vague answers. No fuzzy math. No games. The stakes are too high.”

Concerns over how the rules for access to private care are being written were also addressed during the joint hearing. Some lawmakers are worried the guidelines are too broad and could give veterans unfettered access to the private sector, potentially leading to increased costs and lower quality of care.

“The Mission Act … we passed it with the best of intentions, but it could be a train wreck too,” Tester told Wilkie. “It is in your lap.

"We could end up with a problem where we’re actually cutting benefits for our veterans moving forward."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., expressed his concern that "this is nothing short of a steady march toward the privatization of the VA. It’s going to happen piece by piece by piece until over a period of time there’s not much in the VA to provide the quality care that our veterans deserve.”

Wilkie addressed these concerns in Wednesday’s hearing, assuring the bicameral congressional committee that the changes will not result in the privatization of VA medical care.

“VA will be the central node, no matter what that veteran decides to do,” Wilkie said, refuting the concern the drafted guidelines are paving the way toward the privatization of VA medical care. “It is critical that we deliver a transformed VA health-care system that puts veterans at the center of everything we do.

“My experience is veterans are happy with the service they get at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Wilkie added. “They want to go places where people speak the language and understand the culture.

"We are on the cusp of the greatest transformative period in the history of VA, and your leadership led to the passage of that historic legislation. I am happy to report that the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs is better, and it is better because of the work of these committees, and the attention paid to our department by the president."