News Releases

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Isakson Calls on VA to Utilize Existing 'Veterans Choice' Tools to Provide Accessible, Quality Care to Veterans

"We need a partnership between the private sector and the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver ...world class health care... in a timely way."

WASHINGTON U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, today called on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to put veterans first while it continues to roll out the Veterans Choice Program enacted six months ago.

At a committee hearing held today to assess the VA’s implementation of the Veterans Choice Program, Isakson spoke about the urgent need to reform veterans’ health care. The Veterans Choice Program was created by the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, or the Veterans Choice Act for short, in the wake of the scandal over lengthy wait times for veterans seeking health care that erupted during the spring of 2014 at the Phoenix, Ariz., VA Medical Center.

“You can empower the veteran by seeing to it that they have access to world class care in a close proximity to where they live, in an affordable amount and in a manageable amount, whether it’s from the private sector or the government,” said Isakson. “What we need is a partnership between the private sector and the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver the ultimate goal, which is to see to it that the veterans get world class health care and they get it in a timely way.”

The Veterans Choice Act included sweeping reforms enacted by Congress in response to last year’s scandal to give veterans the tools needed to improve access to quality and timely health care through the Veterans Choice Program. This program gives veterans that meet specific criteria the option of seeking care outside of the VA health care system.

The VA began the full implementation of the Veterans Choice Program on November 5, 2014. Since then, the roll-out of the program has faced significant challenges, partially because the VA was only given 90 days to develop the program, and partially because the VA waited 45 days before reaching out to the private sector to help administer the program.

“There is no excuse for the plethora of problems the VA was having, and the transition [to the Veterans Choice Program] should have been much better, but it wasn't,” said Isakson.

The Veterans Choice Act authorized $10 billion to pay for health care outside of the VA through the Veterans Choice Program. However, as of April 30, 2015, the VA had only obligated $501.3 million to pay for veterans seeking care through the Veterans Choice Program, and only $200.6 million of that money went to medical services for veterans.

Speaking to representatives of both the VA and the Choice Program’s third party administrators, TriWest and Health Net, Isakson emphasized the need for continued strong collaboration between the groups.

“I have met with some of our private contractors, and I appreciate their confidence in the job that they can do,” said Isakson. “I also appreciate the fact that the VA is now cooperating in ways I think it might not have been cooperating before in order to see to it that the two are working seamlessly. If the private contractors and the VA can't work seamlessly, the Veterans Choice Program will never work.”

Isakson questioned Sloan Gibson, Deputy Secretary of the VA, about what the VA is doing to ensure that each VA Medical Center has implemented the program correctly, raising concerns that the culture in lower levels of the Veterans Health Administration does not support non-VA health care. Isakson noted that the integration of non-VA health care should be seen as a “force multiplier” for VA’s health care, not as a failure for the VA.

“I would hope what all of you would do is work together to find some ways to simplify the communication mechanism to the beneficiary, which is the veteran, and to the provider, which is the local provider in Veterans Choice,” said Isakson.

Watch Chairman Isakson’s opening remarks at today’s oversight hearing on the Veterans Choice Program here. The entire hearing will also be available on the committee’s website at http://www.veterans.senate.gov.

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The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 114th Congress. Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate VA Committee since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the military as well as more than 750,000 veterans.