WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said Saturday it will allow more veterans to obtain health care at private hospitals and clinics in an effort to improve their treatment.
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 will awaiting treatment.
Officials also are investigating claims that VA employees have falsified appointment records to cover up delays in care.
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 issued 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.
A spokesman for Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said Miller was pleased by Shinseki's announcement, but wondered why it took so long. Reports about the veterans at the Phoenix hospital surfaced more than a month ago.
Miller said in a statement Friday that Shinseki and President Barack Obama were engaged "in an endless discussion regarding allegations, investigations and unreliable internal VA reviews" while "overlooking VA's very real, very deadly and very well-documented delays in care problem."
Miller has pledged to introduce legislation that would give any veteran who is unable to obtain a VA appointment within 30 days of application the option to receive non-VA care at the department's expense.
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. She said it was unacceptable to have a backlog of patients waiting for permission to go to a federally qualified clinic.