TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — While the VA found only positives in data showing a small fraction of veterans received primary care through the program that allows private sector help if they wait too long for appointments. Others remain skeptical.
“The VA is far from perfect,” veterans advocate David Huston said. “It raises a lot of red flags to have more oversight over this.”
Under the Community Care program, veterans who wait 20 days or longer for a VA primary care doctor are supposed to be offered help outside the agency. But data obtained by 8 on Your Side shows primary care has been a rarity.
According to statistics released by the VA, less than 1 percent of 61.2 million Community Care patients from across the country received primary care during a two-year period that ended late last year.
The percentage in the Bay Area was even lower from the same time frame, totaling a scant .008 percent. By the numbers, only nine out of 106,000 Bay Area veterans got primary care through the program.
Former and current VA employees have told 8 on Your Side they have been trained to guide veterans away from Community Care. The VA has denied those claims.
Community Care was created with the 2014 Choice Act after several veterans died while waiting for care on secret lists in what became known as the Phoenix scandal.
The 2018 Mission Act made several changes to the requirements. At that point, Community Care was supposed to be offered to veterans who wait more than 20 days for primary care and more than 28 days for specialty care.
VA spokesman Randal Noller said the primary care numbers are low because “the vast majority” of veterans prefer the VA even when they are eligible for Community Care.
“We are proud of our work fully implementing the VA Mission Act,” Noller said. “Meeting both the letter and intent of the law to expand access to care for veterans through our community provider network.”
David Huston, Grassroots Engagement Director for the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, said his organization has heard similar claims about VA employees steering veterans away from community care, and gathered supportive documentation through records requests.
“The evidence is there that they are purposefully not allowing veterans to get that access of care through the Community Care program,” Huston said. “The veteran community has that mentality trusting that system when sometimes that system is not working for them.”
Concerned Veterans for America is the sister organization of the Concerned Veterans for America Foundation, which is funded by Americans for Prosperity (AFP). AFP was founded by the Koch Brothers.
But during a U.S. Senate hearing in June, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the agency is considering making the standards for going outside the VA stricter due to the rising cost of Community Care.
Critics have said that would lead to even more delayed care for the men and women who volunteer for the military and often put their lives on the line for country.
“And delayed care? It kills. Veterans who have to wait months on end to get their care? It’s unacceptable,” Hutson said. “It’s really a control factor where the VA would rather those veterans come to VA to get that care rather than getting timely care out in the community through the Community Care program.”
Hutson, whose organization has filed a lawsuit against the VA over how records are released, suggested codifying Community Care requirements through the Guaranteeing Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served Act (Ghaps Act) could have an impact.
“That’ll officially codify those access standards,” Hutson said. “So the VA doesn’t have that ability to make it more strict or even roll it back entirely.”
Senator Marco Rubio called for a congressional investigation into VA employee claims and the data presented to him by 8 on Your Side.
Representative Kathy Castor said she believes a network of clinics has helped the VA serve primary care patients better but she added her office would investigate any claims from VA employees who say they were trained not to offer the program.