The Department of Veterans Affairs is scrambling to clear a
logjam of thousands of patients who remain on wait lists for
medical treatment by creating a Veteran's Choice Fund. That
scramble may increase the amount of care that is being offered to
VA members through private health care providers, particularly in
states with large veteran populations, including California,
Texas, and Florida.
Clearing the backlog
In April 2013, 67 senators sent a letter to President Barack
Obama calling for his direct involvement in fixing the VA's
600,000-claim backlog. That backlog had caused the average wait
time for initial disability claims to soar to 586 days in
Houston and 619 days in Los Angeles.
Then reports surfacing earlier this year that some officials
in Phoenix may have been fudging wait-list data led to an
inquiry by the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, including a
review of information provided by the American Legion suggesting
that creative accounting could be happening in at least 10
Moving in the right direction
As a result of increased oversight by the White House and
Congress, significant advances are being made in reducing the
number of veterans waiting for care.
According to VA reports in July, the agency has reached out to
more than 217,000 veterans on wait lists and referred at least
543,000 patients for care at private hospitals, 91,000 more than
were referred in the same period a year ago. Overall, the VA
claims that its wait list had fallen by 55% from its peak; still,
there's considerably more work to do.
That's because patients are waiting between 61 and 90 days for
more than 178,000 appointments and at least 120 days for an
additional 38,000+ appointments.
Big money problem
This week, Congress responded to the VA's struggles with the
approval of a $17 billion emergency funding bill.
If President Barack Obama signs off on this funding, $10
billion will be placed in a Veteran's Choice Fund at the U.S.
Treasury that will be used to pay for veteran care at non-VA
private healthcare facilities. The VA will also spend $5 billion
hiring new doctors and nurses and the remaining $2 billion to
lease 27 new medical facilities.
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Filling the void
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, California,
Florida, and Texas are home to nearly a quarter of the nation's
22 million veterans.
As a result, the VA last year spent more than $13.5 billion
providing medical care to veterans in those three states. This
suggests that the VA may rely heavily on hospital systems
operating in those states to help clear its remaining
For example, in California, the VA may turn to publicly-traded
Universal Health Services
to help bridge the gap in care. Universal operates six
behavioral health facilities and five acute care hospitals in the
state, including a new 140-bed hospital it opened last year in
the Inland Empire region. Universal may also help the VA out
in Texas, where it operates seven hospitals and 22 behavioral
may play a much larger role. Tenet operates 17 hospitals in
Texas, 11 hospitals in California, and another 10 hospitals in
Florida. Additionally, outpatient facilities in those three
states represent nearly two-thirds of all of Tenet's outpatient
locations. HCA has an even broader network of facilities,
including 78 hospitals in Texas and Florida alone.
Fool-worthy final thoughts
According to the spending bill, veterans who live far away from
VA facilities, or with long wait times, can tap into the Veterans
Choice Fund to pay for care at private facilities. But that
doesn't mean that the system won't face hurdles. Veterans will
need to have private care pre-approved by the VA, and some
doctors may choose not to participate in the VA program.
Regardless, the creation of the Veterans Choice Fund is a great
step toward making sure veterans receive timely care, and that's
good news for everyone.
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originally appeared on Fool.com.
has no position in any stocks mentioned. Todd owns E.B. Capital
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