Senators Worry VA's Long Wait Times Will Continue Despite Mission Act

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Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, center, and David McIntyre, right, both CEOs of two companies granted MISSION Act contracts
Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, center, and David McIntyre, right, both CEOs of two companies granted MISSION Act contracts, listen to a representative from the Disabled American Veterans during a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing. (Military.com photo/Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

Later this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs will roll out a new program mandated by the Mission Act and aimed at offering more health care choices to veterans. But lawmakers expressed skepticism in a hearing Wednesday about how the latest option for veterans to use private care would work.

Congress passed the VA Mission Act in 2018, which included the Community Care Network (CCN) -- a program similar to the old VA Choice program, but with "streamlined" eligibility criteria, one community care program and an urgent care benefit.

Two companies, OptumServe and TriWest Healthcare Alliance, coordinate payments and have created a local network of physicians for the CCN.

OptumServe piloted the CCN and built a network of more than 166,000 health care providers in more than 235,000 care sites in Region 1, which includes East Coast states from North Carolina to Maine.

Related: VA IG Warns Long Wait Times Could Continue with Mission Act Reforms

While Democratic members of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs were still concerned the Mission Act is privatizing VA health care, the concern over whether the reforms would solve the VA's notoriously long wait times and staffing shortages was bipartisan.

"This committee has concerns about how the VA is building out the network and its ability to meet veteran demand," Chairman Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said in his opening statement. "A recent VA OIG report predicts wait times could worsen once Mission is in full effect."

Veterans Health Administration officials and representatives from the two companies implementing the CCN tried to quell the senators' concerns by highlighting the number of providers they've signed up.

"We began by leveraging the 1.3 million providers in the national UnitedHealth and Optum provider networks," said Optum CEO and retired Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, "but our network strategy did not end there. We work with the VA to identify quality providers."

She added the federal health services branch of UnitedHealth Group is still adding new providers to the CCN.

But Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, was concerned about past referrals to non-VA facilities under Veterans Choice, which resulted in long waiting times for referrals that were sometimes inaccurate.

"The VA has a real problem when a caregiver and a veteran are excited to be out of the system and receiving care somewhere else," she said.

Moran agreed there's an issue with how the VA is measuring its wait times for appointments, as it should also take into account how long it takes to have a referral approved.

While the VA prepares to deploy CCN to 48 states by the end of 2020, Moran said it's important to review what was learned from the pilot and how to apply it in the future.

"We must take the opportunity to learn from Region 1 and have honest conversations about difficulties that could threaten the network well before it is fully deployed," he said. "We owe it to veterans to get Mission right the first time."

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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