NOEL KING, HOST:
Big changes are coming today to the Department of Veterans Affairs - or very little change, depending on whose predictions turn out to be correct. Here's what is coming. A big expansion of veterans' access to private care paid for by the VA. Now, this move has critics, who say it's a step toward privatizing the agency. NPR's Quil Lawrence has that story.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Last year, Congress passed the VA Mission Act intended to streamline all the different complicated ways that VA pays for outside care for vets on waiting lists or those who live far away from a VA clinic. It passed with broad bipartisan support. That support fractured as soon as the Trump administration started talking about how to implement the law and opened it up to about 40% of veterans. Democrat Mark Takano chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
MARK TAKANO: I'm afraid this is being driven by ideology rather than what veterans really need. And they're trying to set the VA on a path toward, you know, steering more and more patients to the private sector.
LAWRENCE: That's because any vet who's been asked to drive more than 30 minutes or wait more than 20 days for a VA appointment can now go see a private doctor instead. The bar used to be higher. Critics like Takano say the administration is ideologically opposed to government health care. He says studies show the health care at VA is as good or better than the private sector. Now, the administration agrees with that last part.
ROBERT WILKIE: Our wait times are as good as any in the private sector, and our medical services are good or better than any in any region of the country.
LAWRENCE: That's VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who told NPR that's why he's not concerned that the Mission Act will bleed resources away from the VA. Wilkie says that given the choice, most veterans will stick with VA, where they generally like their care, and the doctors and nurses speak their language.
WILKIE: In the time that I'm here, I've seen the numbers go down in terms of veterans wanting to go into the private sector, which is a testament to how well VA has progressed.
LAWRENCE: The fact is no one knows how many veterans will use this new option. Wilkie says he does not anticipate having to ask Congress for more money to fund it. There's another, more basic, question, though. Will it even work? Multiple government agencies have warned, neither VA staff nor its IT systems are ready. Wilkie disagrees, though VA admits there may be some hiccups at the beginning.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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