WASHINGTON — Veterans would be able to opt out of the Veterans Health Administration system and get care through a private insurer, under a plan being pushed by Rep. Andy Harris.
The Maryland Republican says veterans should have the option to get a health care plan as good as the plans for those providing their care. The "Veterans' Choice Plan" would be comparable to what federal employees are provided through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, he says.
"Veterans who want to continue to get care through the VHA should be able to do so; those who don't should be provided private insurance just like federal employees have," Harris said in a Wednesday statement. "The Veterans' Choice Plan would allow them to see any doctor they want, go to hospitals that are close to home, and receive care from top professionals."
Harris' proposal follows reports that VA employees falsified records in Phoenix and elsewhere to cover up long wait times. Up to 40 veterans in Phoenix may have died awaiting care.
"While outrage is appropriately focused on those who falsified records to cover up long wait times, the fundamental problems that led to long wait times in the first place must also be addressed," Harris' proposal states.
Harris, a Navy veteran and physician who has worked in both the military and veterans health systems, says he will send his reform plan to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee for review later this week. He has not introduced legislation.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore and other rural areas, Harris says, veterans often have no choice but to drive several hours to a full-service VHA-run hospital or to see a physician specialist, while others with health insurance may go to physicians and hospitals nearby.
Under Harris' proposal, Veterans' Choice Plan eligibility for veterans would be phased in gradually, beginning with new enrollees and "priority group 1" veterans. That includes those with VA service-connected disabilities rated 50 percent or more, or those assigned a total disability rating for compensation based on inability to work.
Under Harris' proposal:
■ The federal government would cover the entire cost of a veteran's premium, depending on the veteran's priority ranking. Currently, federal employees pay an average 28 percent of premium costs.
■ Federal officials would offer a system to cover premium costs for priority group 1 and low-income veterans who may not be able to afford co-pays.
Harris believes his plan would be budget neutral and might even reduce veterans' health expenditures.
"The current system is fundamentally flawed, and without giving veterans another choice, the problems will only continue," his proposal states.
Delays in treatment and manipulation of records to hide those delays is "systemic throughout" the VA health system, the agency's inspector general said in a preliminary report Wednesday.
"Our reviews at a growing number of VA medical facilities have thus far provided insight into the current extent of these inappropriate scheduling issues throughout the VA health care system and have confirmed that inappropriate scheduling practices" are widespread, the report said.
The inspector general investigated following allegations by a retired VA doctor in Phoenix who said medical personnel kept secret lists of veterans whose appointments had been delayed. The physician alleged that up to 40 veterans died awaiting care.
Investigators said their probe into the alleged treatment delays in Phoenix shows patient care was compromised.
Contributing: Gregg Zoroya, USA Today