Veterans can expect some glitches in the June 6 rollout of the new community care system but, for most who are eligible, getting an appointment with a private doctor should come down to "punching a button," according to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.
There will be "a few hiccups," but "I'm confident our team is ready across the country" for the long-awaited implementation of the VA Mission Act, said Wilkie, who has billed the new system as the most transformative veterans care initiative in a generation.
Wilkie, who was confirmed as VA secretary a month after President Donald Trump signed the Mission Act into law in June 2018, stressed on C-Span over the weekend that the option to go to a private doctor will be available only when the VA can't provide the health care service that the veteran needs.
Under the new rules, veterans who have to drive more than 30 minutes to the local VA facility or must wait more than 20 days for an appointment can be eligible for private care. The new rules replace the 40-mile, 30-day wait time standards of the existing VA Choice system.
Veterans "are not going to experience a great change" under the new system unless they are eligible for the private option and require care that the VA can't provide, Wilkie said.
He gave an example of how the new system is designed to work: A veteran sits down with a VA medical team. Using a new "decision support tool," they mutually agree on whether the VA can provide the needed care. If the VA cannot provide the service, a screen will pop up, and the medical professional will tell the veteran what is available locally in the private sector.
Then "we can punch this button and make an appointment for you" with a private doctor, Wilkie explained.
In signing the Mission Act last June, Trump indicated that veterans would now be able to see a private doctor at taxpayer expense whenever they want, but Wilkie said that is not exactly the case.
"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," Trump said at the White House signing ceremony last June.
His remarks raised concerns among veterans' service organizations that the administration was seeking to "privatize" the VA, but Wilkie said he did not expect a rush of veterans into community care.
He pointed out that he had just presented a record VA budget proposal of $220 billion that also calls for the number of VA employees to be expanded to 390,000.
"We're not in a pathway to privatization. If we are, we're doing it in a strange way," Wilkie said.
In enacting the Mission Act, Congress did not direct a wholesale shift to the private sector, he said. "They did not pass total choice; they passed an option in the event VA cannot provide a service."
Currently, about 30% of veterans enrolled in VA health care have the private-care option, Wilkie said, adding, "I don't expect to see a major spike" in veterans opting out of the VA because of the progress that has been made in reducing wait times.
"I expect it to be up and running on June 6," he said of the Mission Act.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.