Senator Tom Carper’s annual veterans summit brought U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin together with local vets groups.
Shulkin discussed his top policy priorities – including a new accountability system for VA centers, a reduction in wait times for veterans seeking healthcare and a greater focus on suicide prevention.
“I’m not in favor of privatizing because I think the VA is a national resource that veterans desperately need and that we believe in – but I am in favor of giving veterans greater voice," Shulkin said.
Right now - the “choice” for veterans to seek covered care outside the VA only kicks in if the veteran has waited at least 30 days for an appointment or lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
Shulkin wants to remove that rule under what he calls “Choice 2.0” – which would create an integrated system of care between the VA and the private sector.
The Wilmington VA Center’s Acting Director Bob Callahan says he’s already working on that. He’s developing provider agreements to augment current community-based care providing “choice” treatment through the current federal Health Net system.
“So when Health Net isn’t effective, we’re able to use provider agreements to speed the care," Callahan said. "They get paid by VA – they don’t have to go through a contractor.”
Callahan says he’s worked out over 300 provider agreements since last October – accounting for 30% of the facility’s services.
But for the care to continue – lawmakers must vote to continue the original choice program before it expires in August.
Wilmington VA Center Acting Director Bob Callahan says because of these provider agreements, the hospital has seen a decrease in waiting times - particularly for mental health needs. He added there's been a reduction from 250 to 100 individuals with "longer than what we'd like" wait times specifically related to mental health concerns.
Callahan couldn't provide more specifics on the length of wait times involved - citing a variance in how those wait times are measured, which Shulkin also vowed to address. However, he did say that same day treatment is available for those experiencing a mental health crisis.
Shulkin also says the VA needs to do a better job of identifying at-risk veterans and reaching out to them – before it’s too late.
He’s consulting with community groups on best strategies – but says the 24/7 veterans crisis line is a start, with 200 people added to the call response staff at the end of last year.