Sen. Jon Tester said he’s worried that the Veterans Health Administration is straying from the direction Congress gave it when it passed a bill six months ago to reform how vets get health care outside the VA system.
"We could end up with a problem where we’re actually cutting benefits for our veterans moving forward," said Tester at a joint hearing of the House and Senate veterans committees Wednesday.
They met to hear from VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who’s in charge of implementing the new law, called the Mission Act. It’s supposed to fix problems with the Veterans Choice program, which Congress passed in 2014 to help rural veterans and those facing long wait times for VA health care. It was supposed to allow vets to see local private sector doctors, who would then bill the VA Choice is widely regarded as a failure.
Secretary Wilkie said setting up the Mission Act is going well.
"We are on the cusp of the greatest transformative period in the history of VA, and your leadership led to the passage of that historic legislation. I am happy to report that the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs is better, and it is better because of the work of these committees, and the attention paid to our department by the President."
But Tester and other committee members were skeptical. Some are worried that the Mission Act could be used as a Trojan horse to privatize the VA. Wilkie said he opposes privatization. But he wouldn’t give committee members the details they wanted on exactly how veterans will be allowed to get non-VA care and how it’ll be paid for. If the rules are too loose, Tester and others worry, the Mission Act could bleed VA funding and leave vets no choice but to use private health care providers in the future.
"The Mission Act, we passed it with the best of intentions, but it could be a train wreck, too," Tester said. "And I hate to tell you this, but it’s kind of in your lap. It is in your lap."
The VA has less than six months to implement the new rules in the Mission Act. Wilkie was confirmed as VA secretary in July after President Trump fired David Shulkin, who said he clashed with members of the Trump administration who advocated for VA privatization.