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Republican senators this week accused Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough of purposefully steering veterans away from private sector health care options and keeping them inside a VA system that is becoming less responsive to veterans.
McDonough on Thursday faced a tense round of questions from senators asking about implementation of the Mission Act. The bipartisan law took effect in 2019 and was aimed at getting veterans access to private sector care when VA care takes too long or is too far away, or even when it is in the best interest of a veteran to seek outside care.
Senators pressed McDonough to explain implementation problems they said indicate a “bias” at the VA against referring veterans to outside care. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Ala., cited a Fox News Digital report that said a VA link that used to refer veterans to Mission Act information now refers them to a page called “Choose VA,” and asked McDonough to explain why that change was made.
“Is that true, and then why did you do it if it is true?” Sullivan asked. “That seems like blatant bias, if you did that.”
McDonough dodged the question about the link changed and started talking about “people on your side of the aisle,” which earned him a rebuke from Sullivan.
“Don’t do ‘your side of the aisle,’” Sullivan interrupted. “You’re starting to become partisan, and this agency should not be partisan. I’ve been on this committee way longer than you have, I’ve been focused on veterans’ issues way longer than you have, and I don’t want ‘your side of the aisle’ stuff.”
“You need to tone it down, Mr. Secretary,” Sullivan said. “That’s not going to help veterans. So take the ‘your side of the aisle’ back. We all want care for our veterans. You’re the one who’s starting to get partisan, and I’m not appreciating it.”
Other senators criticized McDonough for the way his agency determines when veterans are eligible to receive private-sector care, known as “community care.” Under VA regulations, veterans are eligible if they must wait more than 20 days for primary care and 28 days for specialty care.
However, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the top Republican on the committee, said the VA is incorrectly starting that clock not when a veteran first calls the VA for an appointment, but weeks or even months later, after a VA “scheduler” begins the work of setting up an appointment. Moran said this system is “unacceptable” and another sign of bias against the use of private care.
“I worry that there is a bias,” Moran said. “We were so intentful in the Mission [Act] language to try to overcome the capabilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs to undo community care. And so, you get me on these questions because I see them as an effort to undermine the plan.”
McDonough said no one at the VA is trying to limit access to the best available care for veterans, but acknowledged he would prefer to keep veterans inside the VA system.
“I will tell you, my view is I want all the vets we can keep in the system to stay in the system, but that’s not my call,” he said.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., agreed with his colleagues that the VA appears to be stifling access to community care.
“Right now, it appears there’s still a huge amount of pressure within the VA itself to keep as many veterans as possible within the VA system, and that even if their preference is to go to the care in the community program, they’re really being restricted,” he said.
McDonough declined to say the VA would get rid of the delay veterans face as VA finds a “scheduler” to set up an appointment, and only offered vague assurances that VA would try to improve the system. “We’re working through our workflows on that, and we will get those right,” he said.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., grew visibly angry at McDonough as he described how his staff was told by the VA to submit a Freedom of Information Act request for data on veterans’ access to community care.
“This is Congress, this is the VA committee which is supposed to be providing oversight, and we were told to submit a FOIA,” Cassidy said as he rapped his papers impatiently. “It kind of took things to a new level.”
“I don’t know how to say, that is such disrespect for the institution of Congress,” Cassidy said. Even the Democratic committee chairman, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, agreed that the VA needs to be responsive to committee requests for information.
“I’ll dig into it,” McDonough replied.