More veterans are being allowed to obtain health care at private hospitals and clinics in an effort to improve their treatment following allegations of falsified records and delays in treatment.
In a statement issued Saturday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki also said VA facilities are enhancing capacity of their clinics so veterans can get care sooner. In cases where officials cannot expand capacity at VA centers, the Department of Veterans Affairs is "increasing the care we acquire in the community through non-VA care," Shinseki said.
Lawmakers from both parties have pressed for this policy change as the VA confronts allegations about treatment delays and falsified records at VA centers nationwide.
The department's inspector general says 26 VA facilities are under investigation, including the Phoenix VA hospital, where a former clinic director says as many as 40 veterans may have died will awaiting treatment.
Officials also are investigating claims that VA employees have falsified appointment records to cover up delays in care. An initial review of 17 people who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix found that none of their deaths appeared to have been caused by delays in treatment.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.
The directive announced Saturday should make it easier for veterans to get medical care at non-VA facilities, according to an agency spokeswoman.
The VA spent about $4.8 billion last year on medical care at non-VA hospitals and clinics, spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said. That amounts to about 10 percent of health care costs for the Veterans Health Administration, the agency's health care arm.
It was not clear how much the new initiative would cost, Dillon said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, welcomed Shinseki's announcement, but questioned why it took so long. Reports about the veterans at the Phoenix hospital surfaced more than a month ago.
"It appears the department is finally starting to take concrete steps to address the problem," Miller said Saturday, calling the directive "a welcome change from the department's previous approach, which was to wait months for the results of yet another investigation into a problem we already know exists."
Miller has accused Shinseki and President Barack Obama of focusing on internal reviews while "overlooking VA's very real, very deadly and very well-documented delays-in-care problem."
Miller has pledged to introduce legislation that would give any veteran who is unable to obtain a VA appointment within 30 days the option to receive non-VA care at the department's expense.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for the VA to allow more veterans to receive medical care at private hospitals. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said this past week that she was open to the idea of medical care at private hospitals. She said it was unacceptable to have a backlog of patients waiting for permission to go to a federally qualified clinic.
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