WASHINGTON -- Just before Congress leaves town for a month, Sen. John McCain introduced a bill Thursday that could increase the controversy over how to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs, proposing that all veterans be eligible to have private care paid for by their VA insurance.
Currently, veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility and those who face long wait times can apply to seek medical care in the private sector on their VA insurance. That was part of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, a three-year pilot program that McCain, R-Ariz., championed as a way to give veterans faster, more convenient access to health care and to make it easier to fire senior VA officials.
McCain's latest bill would make the choice card pilot program permanent and erase the qualifications in the 2014 law, opening the option to every VA eligible veteran.
"This would help remove uncertainty from within the VA, among providers, and especially among our veterans, while sending a strong signal to all Americans that this program is here to stay," McCain said in a released statement. "More than a year after the VA scandal first came to light and a year since VA reform legislation was signed into law, wait times are still too long and veterans are still not getting the care they have earned and deserve."
Veterans groups seemed caught off guard by the bill Thursday, and many contacted by Stripes said they had not yet taken a position on the proposed legislation. In the past, most veterans advocates have come out strongly against privatizing VA health care, and this bill appears to put much more emphasis on paying for private health care for veterans.
There was some early pushback on McCain's new bill, including from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who said existing legislation has achieved the goal of simplifying veterans' choice in their health care.
Sherman Gillums Jr., deputy executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, took a cautious approach, saying that many veterans with catastrophic injuries find that VA treatment centers offer the best -- and in some cases, the only -- care options.
"We support the bill's intent," he said. "But if it requires VA to erode its infrastructure or rob Peter to pay Paul to fund permanent Choice Care, we won't support it."
The Veterans Independence Act, an idea presented earlier this year by conservative veterans group Concerned Veterans for America, has many similarities to McCain's bill, and McCain was one of the keynote speakers at the group's rollout of the plan.
But the group was critical of McCain's plan, saying it does not go far enough. While applauding McCain's earlier efforts to get the original choice act passed, the Concerned Veterans for America's legislative and political director, Dan Caldwell, said this latest choice bill still puts too much control in the hands of VA.
"Simply making the (choice) program permanent will not overcome bureaucratic resistance, and thus meaningful, long-term reform, such as the Veterans Independence Act, is necessary," he said in an email to Stars and Stripes.
VA spokeswoman Walinda West said the VA was looking forward to reviewing the legislation, adding: "It would, however, be premature to take a definitive position until we have had the opportunity to thoroughly review the bill."
Secretary Bob McDonald has spoken out against aggressive efforts to take veterans' health care out of the public sphere.
"We are not in favor of privatizing the VA," McDonald said at a talk Thursday.
The VA is still in the midst of a scandal that began more than one year ago after whistleblowers revealed nationwide problems in patient care as well as malfeasance, including secret wait lists created to manipulate performance data and retaliation against employees who reported misconduct.