President Donald Trump has signed a bill into law that will expand private care for veterans as an alternative to the troubled Veterans Affairs health system. (June 6) AP
Correction: The story mischaracterized Steve Cooper’s military service. Cooper is a U.S. Army veteran.
WASHINGTON — President Trump signed legislation Wednesday paving the way for a major overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs and expanding access for veterans to VA-funded medical care in the private sector.
“These are sweeping, historic changes,” Trump said during a Rose Garden ceremony. “There’s never been anything like this in the history of the VA.”
The measure, which passed both chambers of Congress last month with overwhelming bipartisan support, delivers on a key campaign promise for Trump, who pledged to provide veterans with more non-VA health care choices.
Working out the details of exactly how and when that will happen is now up to agency officials tasked with drawing up regulations under the law.
If confirmed, Trump’s pick to become the VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, would lead that effort. Criteria to be considered include wait times for VA appointments, quality of VA care and distance from a VA facility.
Known as the VA MISSION Act, the law directs the VA to combine a number of existing private-care programs, including the so-called Choice program, which was created in 2014 after veterans died awaiting appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center.
Before signing the legislation, Trump singled out Steve Cooper, a U.S. Army veteran from Arizona who was standing by the president’s side along with Laura Vela, a veteran from Texas.
“No one should suffer what you suffered,” he told the two. “We pledge to act in your name and in the name of every other veteran … You must never be denied care, access or treatment.”
Cooper won a $2.5 million judgment against the VA after the Phoenix hospital failed to diagnose and treat his prostate cancer until the disease had reached a terminal stage. Cooper, whose Stage 4 cancer has been kept at bay by doctors in the Choice program, was exuberant during a phone call immediately after the signing.
“I feel like the commander in chief understands our concerns and is fully committed to keeping his promise,” he said.
Several other Arizona veterans and advocates also joined the ceremony, including Rima Nelson, current director of the Phoenix VA Healthcare System, and U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.
Although Trump spoke as if the legislation would give veterans a private-care alternative for the first time, that option has been in place for three years. However, the new legislation makes the Choice program permanent
McSally said the MISSION Act is landmark legislation. “It’s taken far too long,” she added. “There is a promise and covenant we’ve made to our veterans … This is turning the bureaucracy around.”
Vela, who saw a private provider at VA expense for gall bladder surgery, also described the legislation as a step forward during an interview prior to the event. “It is strengthening our health care, and I think it will improve the health care and welfare of all of our veterans,” she said.
The law also creates a commission to recommend which VA facilities are worth repairing, where new ones should be built, and which ones should be closed and care provided in the private sector instead.
The measure includes some incentives to help the VA hire more health care providers. It allows the agency to provide scholarships to medical students in exchange for their pledging to work at VA. Currently some 33,000 positions are unfilled at the agency.
In addition, the law provides pre-9/11 veterans with benefits to help cover the cost of in-home caregivers. Such benefits previously were provided only to post-9/11 veterans.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin on privatization of VA health care and the revolving door of leadership at the department. USA TODAY
The VA also will be allowed to set up pilot programs under the law to test how to deliver better care more efficiently, including with public-private partnerships.
“We’re really encouraged about that,” Tony Tersigni, president of Ascension, the largest non-profit health system in the country, said before attending the signing ceremony Wednesday.
He dismissed concerns that such moves might mark the first step toward privatizing the VA.
“There’s certain things that the VA has truly become world specialists in that it would be crazy for us to do away with or try to replicate it somewhere else,” Tersigni said. “But there are things that we do extremely well, that we ought to bring to the advantage of a veteran.”
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