- Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie this week asked the Senate Committee for Veterans Affairs for a funding increase of $4.6 billion in 2020 for the department's community care program, which would put the VA medical care budget in 2020 at 9.6% over 2019.
- The funding boost would go toward treatment for 7.1 million veterans and consolidating the community care program, which includes hiring 18,000 people, Wilkie said.
- The community care program, expanded under the VA Mission Act, has been under fire for the past year as Democrats and veteran groups contend the effort is an attempt to privatize the VA.
Wilkie has pushed back against accusations that the department is being privatized. He reiterated that sentiment in his request to the Senate committee.
The secretary has repeatedly cited recent studies that show VA care is getting better. A JAMA study written by VA-affiliated authors earlier this year found wait times for new patients at VA facilities have "significantly improved" and in some cases surpassed the private sector in terms of access.
"We don't privatize the VA because we still have the largest healthcare system in the country, with 170 hospitals, and our veterans are voting with their feet," Wilkie told Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "This is not a libertarian VA. If it were, I would be giving myself a card that says veteran and go out to the private sector and get everything I want."
A 2014 Congressional Budget Office report showed 70% of veterans enrolled in the VA's system already receive most of their care in the private sector. Community care allows veterans to see private providers if they live a specific distance from a VA facility or have to wait a certain number of days to be seen.
The VA's new access standards for community care, proposed in January, make it easier for veterans to seek care outside the VA. The changes, due to take effect in June, include dropping the wait time requirement from 30 days to 20 days for primary and mental care and 28 days for specialties.
Rory Riley, a consultant for veterans organizations such as the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, has told Healthcare Dive that the new access standards are a "step in the right direction."