No matter how you measure it, VA has dramatically improved access to health care for Veterans. The total amount of care delivered is up. Since VA implemented the MISSION Act in June 2019, the number of visits with providers in VA’s community care network is up. Veteran satisfaction is up. And average wait times for VA care are well under MISSION Act eligibility standards for community care in every category.
VA’s front-line staff – physicians, nurses, schedulers, administrative teams, janitors and food service personnel – have been incredible during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have carefully balanced the need to provide Veterans with health care while keeping them as safe as possible.
Here are the facts: VA medical centers never closed, dedicated staff across the nation keep showing up to work every day, and requests for time off among VA staff is at record lows. Veteran trust in VA health care reached all-time highs of over 90% during the pandemic and the willingness of Veterans of all demographics to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a real example of that trust in action.
While taking proactive steps to avoid unnecessary face-to-face appointments, VA completed more than 66 million Veteran visits, including face-to-face, telephone and video visits.
VA’s proactive decision to postpone elective procedures and cancel routine in-person appointments saved Veterans’ lives. VA was an early adopter and pioneer in the area of telehealth and quickly ramped up the use of virtual care, primarily video and phone visits. VA’s use of video visits increased by more than 1,700% within fiscal year 2020 – growing to an excess of 160,000 video visits each week.
For Veterans with urgent care needs, we continue to provide that care in a timely manner – an average of 1.1 days for an urgent referral within VA and 1.4 days for an urgent referral to a community provider. Our emergency departments remain open and staffed for Veterans who need emergent care. Veterans also have the option to use the emergency department in their community when that’s their best or nearest option.
Some critics want you to believe that VA isn’t measuring and reporting wait times or providing Veterans with a choice to receive care through our network of community care providers. That just isn’t true. Unlike any other U.S. health care system, VA posts wait time information for its locations of care for anyone to see. You can go to www.accesstocare.va.gov and search by facility, town or zip code to see exactly how long Veterans have waited for similar appointments. This transparency helps Veterans and their caregivers make educated decisions about their care.
Veterans receiving care within VA facilities who have established relationships with their provider wait an average of 4.3 days for primary care; 3.3 days for mental health care appointments and 11.7 days for specialty care. For new patients seeking an appointment with a new provider or for a new issue within a VA facility, average wait times are 15.3 days for primary care, 10.3 days for mental health and 20.4 days for specialty care.
When VA doesn’t provide a service or Veterans choose to wait because they don’t want a telephone or telehealth visit, Veterans have the option to use VA’s community care network.
We have all been impacted and inconvenienced by the pandemic. At VA, we have worked tirelessly to keep our Veterans and staff safe. That has been, and continues to be, the highest priority from the day we first heard of the virus.
For care in VA, whether Veterans cancel their own appointments or VA cancels the appointment for safety reasons, VA carefully reviews each cancellation to ensure Veterans who need care receive it. VA has reviewed more than 96% of all appointments canceled since January 2020, ensuring that those canceled appointments from early in the pandemic were reviewed first. VA wants to make sure that Veterans have the opportunity for an in-person appointment, had a telehealth visit or no longer need care.
VA has already provided at least one vaccine to nearly 2 million Veterans and staff. In all, VA has administered more than 3.2 million doses to Veterans, employees and Federal partners.
The first groups vaccinated included older and the most vulnerable Veterans. As supply continues to grow, many VA locations have begun vaccinating younger Veterans. VA has been communicating with Veterans throughout the pandemic, using phones, direct mail, secure email and text messaging. To make vaccine scheduling more convenient, VA recently began offering Veterans a text messaging option to schedule appointments.
VA will meet the needs of Veterans who deferred their care during the pandemic and are now ready. Part of this preparation includes referral coordination teams at each facility. They will coordinate care when a provider refers a Veteran for care with a specialist, either in VA or in the community. These teams will ensure Veterans are informed of their options for care, including face-to-face, video and phone, and then get their appointment scheduled quickly.
As VA prepares for life after COVID-19, our objective remains unchanged – to provide the highest-quality care for Veterans when and where they need it.
Veterans have more options for health care today than at any time in history and most continue to choose to receive their care in VA.
Richard A. Stone, MD is the acting Under Secretary for Health for the Veterans Health Administration and oversees the delivery of care to more than 9 million enrolled Veterans at over 1,200 health care facilities. He is a retired Army major general and Afghanistan War Veteran.