Veteran healthcare can expect big changes when the MISSION Act goes into effect on June 6.
The goal is to make healthcare better and faster. In Nevada, the hope is it will mean improved access and shorter wait times for rural and urban residents.
“It gives our veterans the option of going into the private sector if the VA cannot provide the medical services that that veteran needs,” Robert Wilkie, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, told KNPR's State of Nevada.
For example, if a veteran in Las Vegas needed rheumatology services but the wait time was more than 20 days and the veteran lived a certain number of miles from a VA facility, he or she could apply to go to a private sector doctor.
The VA has created software to help veterans find private sector doctors and clinics.
In addition, Wilkie said the agency has consolidated how doctors and hospitals are reimbursed for providing care to veterans and increased those payments.
He believes those increased payments and more efficient payment system will help veterans living in rural areas.
Wilkie would like to see more done for veterans living in rural areas of Nevada and other states.
“What we’re doing for the rural areas is we’re opening up the aperture in terms of reimbursement. We are opening up the aperture in terms of relocation pay," he said. "I have asked the Congress to help us create a VA version of the Peace Corps whereby we eliminate a student’s debt, both doctor and nurse, in exchange for specified and lengthy tour of duty at VA that applies double to rural areas.”
There is also money in the VA's budget to expand telemedicine services for rural areas.
Wilkie said the agency is also expanding its mental health services. The VA hired more than 3,900 mental health professionals last year, but he admitted they are still 3,500 short of what is needed.
He said the private sector is suffering the same shortage of mental health professionals.
“We need to have a national conversation about mental health," he said. "It is long overdue."
The VA now provides same-day mental health services for people coming in looking for help, but there are a lot of people that don't access VA help like veterans from the Vietnam era or people who can't access it because of their status in the military structure, such as the National Guard or members of the reserve.
The Mission Act is a direct response to a 2014 scandal where a VA hospital in Phoenix was not accurately reporting patient wait lists to make wait times seem shorter.
A recent report in the Washington Post included information from a whistleblower at the agency who said the VA still has a secret wait list to hide how long people were waiting for care.
Wilkie pushed back on that report. He said the whistleblower was mistaken and that the lists were actually one for medical services and one for administration, which had no impact on care.
He said wait times for top care categories were as good or better than in the private sector.
And while the new law will allow veterans to seek care outside of the VA under certain circumstances, Wilkie doesn't believe many will choose that option.
“My view, and I’ve said this under oath, is that veterans will nine times out of 10 choose to go somewhere where the people understand the culture and speak the language, which is what our veterans find in our medical facilities,” he said.
Robert Wilkie, Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs