A new pilot program is being tested at Veterans Administration clinics across the country. Rep. Beto O’Rourke unveiled the program at the VA clinic in El Paso last month.
“The prevailing model was just not working,” O’Rourke said.
The old school of thought was that veterans should receive all of their healthcare needs within the confines of the VA hospital system. But, with a 41,000 person shortage in the VA and billions of dollars worth of cost overruns, O’Rourke argues that the VA is being bogged down unnecessarily.
The program creates a partnership with private hospitals to outsource some services and cut down on wait times.
“Why don’t we have the VA focus on what should be its core competencies, those conditions that are connected to combat into military service? I’m thinking of things like post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma or traumatic amputation,” O’Rourke said.
Under the pilot program, veterans who are on the waiting list for things like dental cleanings, a flu shot, diabetes treatment and preventative services could go to a private provider instead of waiting for a VA doctor.
In November, there were 28,598 pending appointments within the El Paso VA Health Care System alone, according to the VA’s website. The representative’s latest survey showed that on average, veterans have to wait 77 days to see a doctor.
“No service member who is now serving in Afghanistan… should have to think about coming back to Fort Bliss, stationed in El Paso, having PTSD and waiting months or years to be able to see a mental health care provider. They should be able to go in the same day and see the same provider and be on the regiment of care that is going to provide the outcomes that we need and that they deserve and that they’ve earned by their service to this country,” O’Rourke said.
The pilot program takes a three-pronged approach. First, it prioritizes veterans who need treatment for war-related injuries so that they are seen by doctors more quickly. Second, it allows veterans looking for non-combat related treatment to schedule visits with civilian doctors. Third, it coordinates services between private hospitals and the VA through a single, unified electronic system.
“We will certainly have veterans who have PTSD but who also have the flu occasionally or they also have diabetes. Their care may be delivered in different physical locations through different providers. But, it should all be coordinated in one place, and that is at the VA. So, the ability to share health information electronically between providers within the VA and without it is going to be another one of those core competencies that the VA is going to have to develop if it is going to be able to serve every single veteran,” O’Rourke said.
The pilot program also works to recruit more healthcare professionals to the VA. Currently, there are 18 mental health positions open at the El Paso VA clinic alone according to officials.
However, O’Rourke admits that there are not many incentives for private healthcare providers to become involved in the pilot program, which could pose a problem.
“They’re not going to get rich off of this. The VA reimbursement rate, I think, it’s something under the Medicare reimbursement rate. But they’re doing this, because they want to help veterans. They know that veterans cannot access care adequately today, and they’re willing to open their clinics and their hospital doors to these veterans to make sure that they get seen,” O’Rourke said.
Though O’Rourke did want to make one point clear.
“I am not and no one is talking about privatizing anything related to the VA. We’re talking about building the VA up to be a much stronger provider of care for veterans and specializing in those things that it should be able to do best.”
O’Rourke hopes the pilot program will pave the way to better healthcare services to veterans nationwide.
“I think this is a case where El Paso is not only fixing its own problems, but it’s helping the country fix theirs,” he said.
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