Vets not impressed with VA reforms

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(CNN)A group of lawmakers and policy activists called for an overhaul of the way the Department of Veterans Affairs delivers healthcare Thursday, arguing the VA should let veterans decide whether to get health care from the private sector.

A task force organized by Concerned Veterans for America said the VA should begin offering subsidized private insurance to veterans and transform its healthcare department into a nonprofit corporation instead of a government agency. The move comes in response to the scandal involving healthcare delays and data manipulation at VA facilities first reported by CNN.
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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, supported the proposed reforms, saying VA healthcare could improve by adopting the competition and flexibility of private healthcare.
    "Bureaucrats at the VA are not commanding officers. They should never have the authority to order around our returning heroes," Rubio said at a policy meeting Thursday. "As soon as the VA is forced to compete with the private sector providers, it will increase the efficiency, the service and its innovation."
    Rubio compared the service quality of the VA to the IRS and the Department of Motor Vehicles, saying the time has come to restructure the agency to better meet veterans' needs.
    "Paying lip service to veterans is always in vogue, but the true measure of public service ... is the willingness to endorse whole reforms," he said.
    Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, suggested the media attention on the VA scandal generated the political will needed to push short-term changes through Congress last year, but she said problems with health care access and quality persist.
    A CNN investigation revealed veterans across the country died or were seriously injured while waiting for care and that some VA facilities maintained "secret lists" to hide extreme delays.
    Gabbard, a veteran of the war in Iraq, said there is a perception among young veterans who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan that the VA does not adequately support them.
    "Many people are thinking either, 'I don't qualify' or 'I don't have time to deal with that,'" Gabbard said, referring to long-wait times and a perception of complicated requirements to obtain VA care.
    In November, the VA unveiled a series of reforms that VA Secretary Robert McDonald called the "largest reorganization of the Department of Veterans Affairs since its establishment."
    The reforms included the establishment of a VA-wide customer service office, new partnerships with private organizations and other reorganizations to simplify the department's structure, which followed a bill passed in August that provided the VA with about $15 billion in funding to improve care.
    The VA also began mailing out "Choice Cards," which allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment to access private care.
    Yet at the policy meeting Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, criticized the "Choice Card" program, saying the VA has denied these benefits to veterans by using various loopholes, such as referencing the aerial distance to a VA hospital rather than the distance by road.
    "They are trying to intentionally or unintentionally circumvent the intent of the law," McCain said.
    Since the program began in November, only 27,000 veterans have made private healthcare appointments with "Choice Cards," according to the VA.
    McCain additionally criticized McDonald for resisting the idea of providing all eligible veterans with private health insurance and jokingly referred to McDonald as a member of the "Special Forces."
    McDonald came under fire this week for falsely claiming in January to have been a former member of the Army's elite Special Forces, for which he later apologized. McDonald completed Army Ranger training but served in an airborne division.
    In response to arguments for increased privatization, McDonald welcomed constructive criticism of VA healthcare but rejected the idea that transferring veterans to the private sector will improve quality of care.
    "Reforming VA health care cannot be achieved by dismantling it and preventing Veterans from receiving the specialized care and services that can only be provided by VA," McDonald said in a statement on Thursday.
    In separate testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Thursday, McDonald said the VA is emerging from one of its "most serious crises" but through current reforms the VA's culture is changing.
    In addition to calling the VA to offer private health insurance, Concerned Veterans for America proposed requiring the VA to report detailed data on its medical costs to Congress and increasing coverage and access for veterans with combat-related injuries, according to a report released Thursday.
    The report included polling data that found 77% of veterans believe they should be able to choose a private physician even if this requires out-of-pocket costs.
    Concerned Veterans for America's legislative director Dan Caldwell said on CNN's "The Lead" Tuesday the current reforms in the VA have not adequately addressed healthcare shortcomings.
    "Quite frankly, this 'MyVA' reform plan that secretary has put out, it is a joke. Making VA employees wear these 'I CARE' pins and that's somehow evidence of reform, it's a joke," Caldwell said. "We need real reform."