The Department of Veterans Affairs is on track for the June 6 rollout of the transformative Mission Act program to expand private health care choices, but initial glitches should be expected, officials said Thursday.
"We understand there might be issues" with getting the system in gear and bringing veterans, and administrators, up to speed on how to use it, said one of three VA officials who spoke on background in a conference call with reporters.
However, the officials stressed that the benefits of a system giving veterans more say in their own health care outweigh any drawbacks.
The new program, officially called the "Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act," will replace the previous Choice program that veterans and private doctors complained was riddled with inefficiencies in administration and delays in payments.
One of the problems with Choice was lack of funding, forcing the VA to go back to Congress periodically for additional appropriations, the officials said.
This year, the VA has a budget that's "the highest it's ever been," topping $200 billion for the first time, one of the officials said. But a second official did not rule having to go back to Congress again for additional funding if unforeseen problems arise.
About 70% of veterans currently have their own health insurance, either through Medicare, Medicaid or their employers. The officials said they expect a spike in the number of veterans using health care through the VA under the new program.
However, they also said they expect the ratio of veterans who choose private health care through the VA -- about 30% -- to remain the same.
President Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge of letting veterans pick their own doctors. The Mission Act was intended to streamline veterans' care by overhauling and expanding the existing Choice program while consolidating its seven existing care options into one.
"All during the campaign, I'd go out and say, 'Why can't they just go see a doctor instead of standing in line for weeks and weeks and weeks?' Now they can go see a doctor. It's going to be great," Trump said at the bill's signing.
Veterans groups initially expressed concerns that the Mission Act would lead to the "privatization" of VA health care, but officials have repeatedly said that most veterans are satisfied with their care through the department and will remain with the VA.
Under the new access standards going into effect June 6, veterans can see a community provider if they've been waiting for more than 20 days for primary or mental health care, or face a 30-minute drive to the nearest VA facility.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.