The charity arm of a group founded largely to expand veterans' access to private-sector health care has launched a website to educate former service members on their medical benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs and in the community.
Launched Wednesday, the Concerned Veterans for America Foundation's VA Mission Act website provides resources once found on a VA website designed to educate veterans about their health benefits under the Mission Act, legislation passed in 2018 that made it easier for veterans to get care at non-VA facilities.
The VA's primary Mission Act website was removed in 2021, and its content, including a health care provider locator, was either dropped or posted to other VA sites, such as Choose.VA.gov, MyHealth.VA.gov and va.gov/communitycare.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said during a Senate hearing last year that the change stemmed from the consolidation of two VA offices, the Office of Community Care and Office of Access to Care, into one Office of Integrated Veteran Care.
Concerned Veterans for America, or CVA, officials say, however, that the move was a deliberate attempt to steer veterans to VA medical facilities for health services. They also allege that the website's disappearance violates the Mission Act, which required the VA to provide physical and online educational resources to vets on their expanded access to community care under the law.
"It seems to be part of the programmatic efforts to not let veterans be educated about their options," said Darin Selnick, a senior adviser to CVA who previously served as an adviser to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie during the Trump administration.
Before the Mission Act passed, veterans could receive care at non-VA facilities under limited circumstances, including unavailability at their local VA for specific medical needs, if they lived more than 40 linear miles from a VA medical facility, or couldn't get a primary care appointment within 30 days.
The Mission Act expanded the access standards to include veterans with drive times longer than 30 minutes for a primary or mental health appointment or 60 minutes for specialty care. It also shortened the wait time to 20 days for primary care or 28 days for specialty care.
Since the law passed, the number of Veterans Health Administration patients seeking care in the community has increased, rising from roughly one-quarter of the VA's total health care demand in 2021 to 33% in 2022.
From fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2021, VA community care spending rose from $10.1 billion to $21.8 billion -- amounts that McDonough has said are not sustainable.
The CVA Foundation maintains that while the law remains in place, the VA must provide community care to veterans and educate them on their options to access it, including their benefits for urgent care, wait time standards, and the appeals process if they are denied requests for non-VA care.
The new CVA website contains that information, as well as a provider locator that directs veterans to their nearest VA medical facility and physicians who participate in the VA community care program.
"As the VA continues to take steps backward by undermining the progress made with the Mission Act, we will do everything we can to educate veterans on their rights and empower them to make the best decisions for their own health care needs," CVA Foundation Executive Director Russ Duerstine said in a statement.
Since 2011, Concerned Veterans for America has been at the heart of the debate over VA medical services and veterans’ access to private care -- what many describe as the privatization of VA health care – that the organization argues is simply an effort to provide world-class care to veterans.
As a nonprofit, the group is not required to reveal its donor sources, but it was established with seed money from donors affiliated with libertarian-leaning billionaires David and Charles Koch. Currently, CVA is associated with two organizations established or funded by the Kochs, including Americans for Prosperity and Stand Together, a philanthropic group.
As an adviser to the group, Selnick was appointed to the VA's Commission on Care, created by the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act to make recommendations on reorganizing the Veterans Health Administration. He largely has advocated for shuttering underperforming or underutilized VA facilities while expanding access to private care and was instrumental in the development of the Mission Act.
The increase in utilization of non-VA care has sparked other problems with the program, including delays in payments to providers, concerns about access to care, and debate over the accessibility of mental health services in the private sector.
On Wednesday, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., introduced a bill with Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., designed to fix what he perceives as issues with VA health services.
The Veterans’ Health Empowerment, Access, Leadership, and Transparency for our Heroes Act, or Veterans HEALTH for short, would bolster veterans' ability to choose where they want to see a physician -- at the VA or from a list of network providers -- by restricting the administration's ability to rein in referrals to the program.
It also would ensure that access standards apply to inpatient mental health care and residential rehabilitation substance use treatment; encourage broader use of community care via telehealth if the veteran wants it; and requires VA to educate veterans on their community care benefits in a timely manner, provide reasons to veterans if that care is denied, and inform them how to appeal a denial -- the same type of information found on CVA's website.
"VA medical facilities should provide prompt, world-class services for the 400,000 veterans in Alabama and millions across the country. This bill helps bring the VA health care system into the 21st century and promotes a culture of constant improvement for our veterans," Tuberville said in a statement.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.