The country's largest veterans' service organization told Congress on Wednesday that it supports giving veterans access to private sector care when necessary, but will not accept any move to privatize Veterans Affairs Department healthcare.
"The American Legion applauded emergency legislation to allow veteran patients to use non-VA providers if they were waiting a month or longer to see a doctor or if they lived far from VA facilities," Legion National Commander Michael Helm said. "But let me be clear ... We oppose privatization or vouchering out of VA care as a long-term solution."
A program established last year created a veterans Choice Card, enabling veterans facing long appointment wait times, or those who live far from a VA hospital or clinic to go to a private provider.
The $15 billion Choice Act was a response to veterans' frustration with getting timely care or having to go to VA facilities sometimes hundreds of miles away. Delays and distance already were issues when the wait-time scandal broke last year out of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Whistleblowers told CNN that many veterans waiting for an appointment were put on a secret or unauthorized wait lists and that more than 30 died.
VA officials subsequently found similar issues at VA facilities across the country.
Under the Choice Act, veterans waiting longer than 30 days for an appointment with the VA, or who live further away than 40 miles to a VA facility, can opt to see a provider in the private sector.
Legion officials, however, are concerned that the program could be the start of an effort to privatize veterans' healthcare.
Helm told Military.com after the congressional hearing that no lawmaker or VA leader would ever raise that as a possibility in public, but the idea does get play in the public forum.
"You see things in the newspapers, in editorials," he said, "And we see that people say the VA is broken and a way to solve that is to do away with it."
The Choice Act "could be the camel's nose in the tent, if you will. That's why we're voicing our opinion right away," he said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told the Legion during the hearing that the Choice Act never was intended to replace VA healthcare.
"However, there are a lot of people within the VA, and I think there are some veterans, who would like to see Veterans Choice fail out of fear of it becoming a substitute for VA healthcare," he said. Isakson said he has a problem with that because he and other lawmakers are committed to making the program work "as a supplemental service to our veterans."
"But it's going to take the cooperation of members of the Legion and veterans and an attitude adjustment at the VA ... to make that work. But I am committed to making that work," he said.
Lawmakers currently at odds with VA leadership and the White House over VA Secretary Bob McDonald's proposal to reallocate some of the $15 billion appropriated for the Choice Act to meet other VA needs.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, rejected the plan when it was announced in early February.
"When a near-unanimous Congress worked with President Obama last year to create the Choice program, we made a promise to veterans to give them more freedom in their health care decisions. I will not stand idly by while the president attempts to renege on that promise," Miller said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.