The Department of Veterans Affairs pushed back Monday at a New York Times report suggesting that expanded community-care options under the VA Mission Act would lead to the "privatization" of VA health care and the eventual shutdown of some VA medical centers.
"Privatization is a myth and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding veterans' health care," Curt Cashour, a VA spokesman, said in a statement.
The Mission Act, passed last year by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump with the support of veterans service organizations (VSOs), was intended to overhaul and continue funding for the VA Choice program on private-care options. That program was riddled with inefficiencies, both for veterans and the community-care providers.
Under the act, about $5.2 billion in mandatory funding was appropriated for the Veterans Choice Fund. The new Veterans Community Care Program was designed to include new standards for access to care.
Cashour said that the Mission Act now "gives the VA secretary the authority to set access standards that provide veterans the best and most timely care possible -- whether at VA or with community providers -- and the department is committed to doing just that."
The statement was in response to a New York Times report Sunday that said billions of dollars could be diverted under the Mission Act from the VA's hospitals and clinics -- the nation's largest health care system -- into the private sector, and could eventually lead to the closure of some VA medical centers.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has repeatedly given assurances that he has no intention of "privatizing" the VA, but he has yet to give public guidance on the new access standards on expanding community care.
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said, "Congress provided clear guidance to the VA when it passed the bipartisan Mission Act" to protect the VA's existing health care system while making it "simpler for veterans to access the care they need."
In a statement to Military.com, Brownley said she is concerned about "White House insistence that private medical care be 'paid for' through cuts to VA programs."
"The administration should know that I will hold them accountable to pursue the best care for our veterans, not inferior care driven by political ideology," Brownley said.
Major veterans service organizations said they expect Wilkie to honor his pledge against privatization, but also said they are waiting on the new access standards before making a final judgment.
"There are no indications that the VA is going to be privatized," said Chanin Nuntavong, director of the American Legion's National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, but "we're waiting for the president to decide what the access standards are going to look like."
"We don't believe privatization is the intent here" under the reforms of the Mission Act, said Carlos Fuentes, director of National Legislative Services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But "specifically, we want to see the access standards."
In a statement, Randy Reese, executive director of the Washington headquarters of Disabled American Veterans, said the organization remains "optimistic that Secretary Wilkie will honor his commitment to improve care for our nation's veterans not just by expanding access, but also by focusing on long overdue modernization of the VA health care system, filling employee vacancies and rebuilding infrastructure."
"We've learned from the experience of Choice that providing additional access outside of VA actually leads to increased demand for health care inside VA as well," Reese said. "We also know that the private sector has neither the expertise nor the capacity to absorb such a large and complex patient population."
Late last month, the VA began awarding the first of several regional contracts under the Mission Act for the new Community Care Network that will replace various private-sector care programs for veterans. The contracts could cost a total of $55.2 billion through 2026, if all the options are exercised, the department said.
The VA announced Dec. 28 that it awarded management contracts for three regions covering 36 states, plus Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and the U.S. Virgin Islands, to Optum Public Sector Solutions Inc., a government-services arm of Optum, the health services arm of United Healthcare.
-- Patricia Kime contributed to this report.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.