WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's decision to allow more veterans to get care at private hospitals could take some pressure off backlogged Veterans Affairs facilities struggling to cope with new patients from the wars on terrorism as well as old soldiers from prior conflicts.
Agreeing to recommendations from lawmakers, the administration said Saturday it will allow more veterans to obtain treatment at private hospitals and clinics in an effort to improve care.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki also said VA facilities are enhancing capacity of their clinics so veterans can get care sooner. In cases where officials cannot expand capacity at VA centers, the Department of Veterans Affairs is "increasing the care we acquire in the community through non-VA care," Shinseki said.
Lawmakers from both parties have pressed for this policy change as the VA confronts allegations about treatment delays and falsified records at VA centers nationwide.
The department's inspector general says 26 VA facilities are under investigation, including the Phoenix VA hospital, where a former clinic director says as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment.
Officials also are investigating claims that VA employees have falsified appointment records to cover up delays in care. An initial review of 17 people who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix found that none of their deaths appeared to have been caused by delays in treatment.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.
The directive announced Saturday should make it easier for veterans to get medical care at non-VA facilities, according to an agency spokeswoman.
The VA spent about $4.8 billion last year on medical care at non-VA hospitals and clinics, spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said. That amounts to about 10 percent of health care costs for the Veterans Health Administration, the agency's health care arm.
It was not clear how much the new initiative would cost, Dillon said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, welcomed Shinseki's announcement, but questioned why it took so long. Reports about the veterans at the Phoenix hospital surfaced more than a month ago.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for the VA to allow more veterans to receive medical care at private hospitals. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said this past week that she was open to the idea of medical care at private hospitals.
"We can't have another backlog of people waiting for permission to go to a federally qualified clinic in a region," Pelosi told reporters at her weekly press conference on Thursday. "We have to think in a big way because this is a very big challenge."
The ongoing controversy sparked a fierce row on Saturday between the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and one of the top veterans' service organizations in the country.
In an open letter, Burr commended the American Legion for calling for leadership change at the VA during a Senate hearing last week, but he criticized other similar organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, for not following suit. "Most of the other VSOs appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle," he wrote.
He clarified that the national and local commanders of such organizations "have the interests of their members at heart," but said he "no longer [believes] that to be the case within the Washington executive staff" of the organizations."
His letter prompted a furious response from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which slammed Burr's "absolutely disgusting ambush style of politics" in a letter of their own.
"Your allegations are ugly and mean-spirited in every sense of the words, and are profoundly wrong, both logically and morally," the organization wrote. "Quite frankly senator, you should be ashamed."
"The VFW staff you chose to rebuke and whose principles you have questioned walk the walk. They've been there, done that, and some of them have the scars to show for it," they continued. "Let me assure you senator, our DC staff does not operate in a vacuum or independently from its headquarters in Kansas City."
The organization said they have stressed the need for accountability from the VA and accused Burr of "not listening" to their testimony: "Nowhere did we suggest that we were interested in protecting anyone."
"If we've been remiss in anything, Senator, we've been remiss in being too polite with Congress. For years, the VFW has come to Congress with hat in hand, and for years, we've heard the same old story," they wrote. "You can be assured senator, that you've done a superb job in showing us the error of our ways...We will not stand by and let our members be distracted by rhetoric or finger-pointing and we certainly won't abide our veterans being used as political footballs. And you can be sure that we will let our membership know the low regard you hold for their organization."