veteran seeking physician

This is the second installment in a new series on the Physician Law Blog entitled “Small Doses” designed to provide you with quick updates on meaningful issues.  We will continue to provide you with detailed updates on significant topics which we think are worth your time to read.  The purpose of “Small Doses” is to give you just enough information regarding a topic to have a general understanding of its import in a quick, easy read.  

Soldier in uniform and doctor shaking hands with U.S. flag on background In response to the publicity surrounding long wait times and poor quality of healthcare for veterans, Congress passed a law in 2014 to improve access to healthcare for veterans. The law established the Veterans Choice Program, which requires the VA to cover a veteran’s healthcare from a private community-based physician, if the veteran lives more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or would have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment at a VA facility.  However, to qualify for coverage, the veteran is also required to obtain certification from the VA that the veteran actually lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility or would actually have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment at a VA facility.  This certification process can take anywhere from 2-10 business days or more.  Throughout this process, the veteran must wait to receive an appointment with a physician, not to mention the treatment that he or she needs.

Last month, President Trump signed the VA MISSION Act into law.  Among other things, the Act consolidates the existing VA community care programs into one program (called the “Veterans Community Care Program”) that seeks to facilitate access to healthcare outside the VA by loosening the qualification requirements for covered medical services from non-VA physicians.  Although the Act fails to remove the certification requirement, it provides additional ways for a veteran to qualify for services from a community-based physician, most notably:

  • If the VA is not able to furnish care within designated access standards established by the VA; or
  • If the veteran’s VA physician believes that receiving services from a private physician is in the veteran’s best interest, considering certain criteria, such as the timeliness of available appointments and the distance between the veteran and the nearest VA facility.  [An easy-to-read summary of the entire Act is available here:  VA MISSION Act Summary].

The designated access standards have not yet been established by the VA; however, the VA has begun the process of defining those standards by requesting comments and guidance from the public and commercial health insurance plans.  [See the VA’s Request for Information, for which comments are still pending through July 30, 2018].

The Act also provides for the expansion of an approved network of VA community-based providers under contract with the VA.  Payment rates under the Act will generally be tied to Medicare rates, although the VA will be permitted to incorporate value-based reimbursement models to promote high-quality care.  The Act also seeks to improve the sharing of medical records between community-based physicians and the VA.

The biggest question right now is whether the Act will be funded.  Currently, funding for the Act is caught up in the politics of the federal government’s next appropriations bill, which must be signed by September 30, 2018 to keep the government operational.

If funded, the new Veterans Community Care Program will likely increase the number of veterans who are able to seek treatment with community-based physicians. In the interim, the Act provided for sufficient funding to extend the Veterans Choice Program for another year, so physicians should expect a continuation of the status quo while the Act is implemented.

Stay tuned to Fox Rothschild’s Physician Law Blog for further developments on the Act and how it may impact physicians.