Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Wednesday told a skeptical House Committee that his agency is sticking with the June 6 rollout date for expanded private health care options, even if the IT systems aren't fully in place to handle the transition.
In testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Wilkie said the Mission Act requires the new rules on access to community health care for veterans to go into effect regardless of whether the systems are operational.
He said the main concern is the "decision support tool," which aids doctors and veterans in deciding whether the best health care option is in the private sector.
"We're going to be implementing the Mission Act even if the decision support tool is at 70% or 50%," Wilkie said under questioning from Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California.
Wilkie spoke a day after another committee hearing at which several lawmakers suggested that the planned rollout of new rules for the Mission Act should be delayed to ensure that IT systems are functioning properly.
That hearing focused on a report from the U.S. Digital Service -- a White House team aimed at improving technologies across federal agencies -- which warned that the VA's IT system for implementation of the Mission Act has the potential to create confusion and disrupt care.
"I believe in taking the time to get things right," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the committee's ranking Republican. "I would rather VA postpone implementation of this program than to rush to implementation in name only and have veterans pay the price for it."
Wilkie, however, said VA staff are prepared to deal with glitches in the IT systems.
"Our people have been trained on how to work with our veterans in setting the access standards and availability standards," he said.
VA staff, he added, will send vets to community care if the right choices are in the private sector.
Brownley noted previous VA failures in putting IT systems in place.
"I think it's fair to say that we don't have the greatest reputation" for IT implementation, she said.
Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, testified that another IT problem is in tracking and keeping inventory of medical supplies for the VA's vast system of 170 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics.
"This is a deeply fractured supply chain," Stone said. "What we have is not working."
He said that the VA had more than four million credit card transactions for supplies last year.
"I believe it is ripe for potential corruption," Stone said.
The hearing was called to consider the VA's budget request of $220 billion, but several lawmakers questioned whether the funding is sufficient for implementation of the Mission Act and other major initiatives, including the multi-billion dollar plan to finally make Defense Department and VA electronic health records compatible.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, the committee's chairman, said projections put the Mission Act's costs at $47 billion over five years. He questioned whether money might be pulled from other programs to fund expanding private health care options under the act.
"We do not know if this budget goes far enough," Takano said.
Wilkie called the budget the largest "in the history of the department" and once again sought to allay fears that the aggressive implementation of the Mission Act would lead to the "privatization" of VA health care.
He said surveys show that veterans' satisfaction rate with the health care they receive from the VA is at 90%, and morale among VA employees is at an all-time high.
The surveys are "my response to those who say we're in the middle of privatizing this institution," Wilkie said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.