President Donald Trump last week signed a welcome and widely supported new law to reform aspects of Veterans Affairs. Disagreements remain over how to find the money for the new programs and a few other details of the law, but these do not appear to be major obstacles. The fact that the department lacks a leader, however, may weaken the reforms, which have a tight deadline.
President Trump has nominated Robert Wilkie, an experienced government administrator now at the Pentagon, to serve as the new secretary of Veterans Affairs. The office has been vacant since March 28, when David Shulkin was forced to resign after being accused of abusing his authority. Mr. Trump’s first choice to follow Dr. Shulkin, White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson, withdrew from his confirmation hearings in late April.
The new law makes it easier for veterans to seek care from private physicians, improves administration of the VA’s private provider services and betters links between VA health care centers and local health care provider networks. It makes it easier for the VA to hire needed medical staff, and extends VA caregiver subsidies to veterans of any era. Previously the caregiver help was limited only to veterans who served during or after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and who were injured on duty.
Providentially, just two days before the signing ceremony for the VA Mission Act, the Government Accountability Office issued a report slamming the VA’s private-sector provider program. Called the Choice program, it will remain in place for a year while the newer, improved version is under construction.
According to the GAO, the Choice program was put together too hastily, resulting in “programmatic weaknesses, such as insufficient provider networks, significant delays in scheduling appointments, and a lack of timely payments” to private providers of health care services to veterans.
Part of the problem with the program was the complexity of the VA administrative organization for private provider services. The new law consolidates seven offices that were engaged in reviewing and approving private provider serves for veterans into one. That should make it much easier for the roughly one-third of VA outpatients now seen by private doctors, and is likely to expand veterans’ demand for access to private health care.
Despite the likely increase in the use of the private sector health care market by veterans, the new law won widespread support from veterans’ organizations, including those strongly opposed to complete privatization of the VA.
Not surprisingly, the move was not supported by public sector unions. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents VA employees, said the act will force veterans “to sit in long lines at private walk-in clinics ... to receive inferior care.”
That outcome is unlikely. And multiple stories from the last four years detail veterans lacking service or even dying because VA employees lied to their superiors about how many veterans were awaiting care and other derelictions of duty. Such shortcomings cannot go unaddressed.
Now Congress should act swiftly to confirm a new secretary of Veterans Affairs, who must make implementation of the VA Mission Act his top priority.