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House bill would let more vets get private care

Jun. 19, 2013 - 01:18PM   |  
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An Arizona lawmaker wants to expand veterans’ access to private health care by requiring the Veterans Affairs Department to make the best interest of the patient a priority when deciding whether contracted care is appropriate.

Democrat Rep. Ron Barber, who estimates that one out of every six adults in his congressional district is a veteran, said his intent is to help vets in rural areas who would have to travel long distances to receive VA care, as well as veterans in urban areas who face long waits for appointments.

“I’m working to make it as easy as possible for them to receive the care they need and have earned, without excessive waits or travel,” Barber said in a statement.

A former aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Barber grew up in an Air Force family, although he never served in the military. His congressional district includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

VA currently contracts for health care with private doctors and hospitals for some specialty services so veterans do not have to travel long distances, and it also provides contract care in some rural areas. In some cases, VA also helps coordinate treatment with private doctors.

However, written VA policy discourages what it calls “dual” treatment: “Continuity of primary care has been shown to have significant benefits, including lower rates of hospitalization and lower mortality. By splitting care between two or more health systems and multiple providers, dual care may pose risks to patients.”

Additionally, for VA patients also receiving outside care, “VA staff experience concerns regarding legal liability and a sense that their professional skills are devalued,” reads VA’s guidance to health care workers.

The Veterans Health Access Act, HR 2412, introduced by Barber on Thursday, is co-sponsored by Rep Joe Heck, R-Nev., an Army Reserve colonel and medical officer who has been selected for promotion to brigadier general.

Heck said veterans “face numerous challenges in trying to access the health care services” in Nevada. “The burdens our veterans face when trying to access health care are significant. We should be working to eliminate those burdens.”

Making the best interests of the patient the primary consideration in deciding whether a VA facility or private facility will be used to provide care likely will increase private-sector treatment, Heck said.

Wait time, distance and quality of care would also be factors in the decision, under Barber’s bill, which was referred to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for consideration.

That committee will look at another veterans’ bill introduced Thursday by Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., that also would expand contracting with private doctors.

Runyan’s bill, HR 2423, is aimed at a different problem: the wait for medical examinations to receive a rating for a service-connected disability. It would expand contracting so that more civilian doctors are involved, a move intended to speed claims decisions.

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