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By Patricia Kime
Military Times Staff writer
May. 27, 2014 - 07:33PM

A new Veterans Affairs Department effort to shorten wait times for veterans needing health care could include extended hours and overtime at VA health facilities in addition to increased staffing at some VA primary care clinics.

In cases where VA cannot meet demand for timely appointments in-house, the initiative would expand access to care in private health facilities paid for by VA.

The VA on Tuesday released details of an effort to speed veterans’ access to health care. The “Accelerating Care Initiative,” launched Friday, has started with a review of all primary care clinics to determine whether they are correctly sized and staffed to meet demand. Clinics needing more capacity will be authorized extended hours, to include nights and weekends, as well as overtime for health care providers.

In areas where VA cannot expand service, facilities will increase use of non-VA hospitals to augment care.

According to a VA release, facilities will make a minimum three attempts to contact any patients new to VA care or new to a clinic if their appointment is more than 30 days away or if they are currently on an electronic wait list.

The VA hospital or clinic then will assess whether the veteran wants to be seen sooner than scheduled, and if the answer is yes — and the capacity and resources are available — the veteran will be given a new appointment.

If the resources are not sufficient, the veteran will receive a referral for non-VA care.

The initiative is a response to the current scandal involving numerous health care facilities in the VA system. The VA has come under fire for allegations that some facilities have been gaming the appointment system to meet VA metrics as well as charges that excessive wait times for appointments and consults may have lead to patient deaths.

According to a VA fact sheet released Tuesday on the initiative, the “surge” is set to continue for at least 90 days.

In a Memorial Day message to veterans, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said his department is “is re-doubling its efforts, with integrity and compassion, to earn [veterans] trust.”

“As President Obama said, veterans have ‘done their duty, and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours—that we uphold our sacred trust to all who have served.’ And we will,” Shinseki said.

VA officials did not provide an estimated cost of the initiative but said in fiscal 2014, it already has paid for health services of 904,714 veterans at non-VA facilities at a cost of $3.38 billion.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Sunday during a C-Span broadcast that the private care option may be sufficient to relieve the current burden on the system but it would be more expensive in the long run.

Sanders instead favors increased funding for existing health facilities as well as new construction — provisions he included in a massive veterans bill he proposed earlier this year.

That legislation failed to pass the Senate amid objections to its cost: $21 billion over 10 years.

Sanders said last week he plans to reintroduce the legislation as well as a bill that would allow VA secretaries to remove senior executives because of poor job performance.

“If you think it’s too expensive to take care of our veterans then don’t send them to war,” Sanders said last week during an exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who expressed concern about the veteran omnibus bill cost.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has called a hearing on Wednesday to receive updates from VA on the topic of a committee subpoena for information related to an alleged secret wait list at the Phoenix VA Health System.

Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has been pressing VA to expand its non-VA care pay program.

“The accusations facing the department — which increase by volume and gravity by the hour — have understandably led to a crisis in confidence on the part of many of our vets who no longer feel the VA is willing and able to provide them with timely care,” Miller wrote in a letter to Shinseki on Thursday.

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