A day after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told a hometown newspaper he favored the idea of privatizing the VA, Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a plan to help veterans on wait lists obtain care at private facilities.
“Each of our facilities is either enhancing their clinic capacity to help Veterans get care sooner, or where we cannot increase capacity, increasing the care we acquire in the community through non-VA care,” Shinseki said in a statement.
The move comes as Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have begun drafting legislation that would allow at least some privatization of care.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he will introduce a bill when the Senate returns to session in June that would let veterans seek medical attention outside of the VA system. The plan could involve providing veterans with a credit card or government identification card to obtain private care.
“Veterans have earned the right to choose where and when they get their medical care, and it is our responsibility to afford them this option,” McCain wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. “Continuing to require that they rely on a system riddled with dysfunction, while waiting for broader reform, is patently unacceptable.”
In the House, Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has promised to introduce legislation that would allow veterans to obtain private care if they are forced to wait longer than 30 days for medical attention within the VA system.
“We simply can't afford to wait for the results of another investigation into a problem we already know exists,” Miller said.
Republicans have called for privatizing the VA in the past, but Democrats and some veterans groups have opposed the idea.
Boehner told the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday that he first proposed privatizing the Department of Veterans Affairs more than twenty years ago.
“I still like the idea, and especially now,” He told the paper.
The most recent GOP presidential nominees, Mitt Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008, each suggested veterans would be better served if they could get their medical care outside the VA system. Romney, during a Veterans Day campaign stop in South Carolina in 2011, suggested “a voucher that goes with them.”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars quickly denounced Romney’s idea, and he dropped the proposal.
But privatization is suddenly gaining traction as more reports surface of VA centers creating secret waiting lists to hide backlogs that have in dozens of cases left veterans to die as they wait for medical appointments.
The House will intensify pressure on the administration with a hearing Wednesday that will highlight the failures within the Phoenix VA system, where as many as 40 veterans died waiting for care.
House lawmakers have also scheduled votes this week on legislation aimed at increasing accountability at the VA, where senior executives were receiving bonuses even at hospitals with long wait lists.
The list of bills include a measures to overhaul the performance appraisal system for senior executives and legislation that would force the VA Secretary to quickly provide the names of VA managers who are not following recommendations from the VA inspector general to reform the system and would block performance bonuses for incompetent VA employees.
The House last week passed legislation that would give the VA secretary greater power to fire senior executives for poor performance. But the Senate, run by Democrats, blocked quick approval of the House measure.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told the Washington Examiner he blocked the bill because he wants to first hold committee hearings on a comprehensive overhaul of the VA.