A House panel passed a bill last week that would allow the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to close underused inpatient units more quickly and hire private hospitals to take up the slack.
Under the Veterans' Millennium Health Care Act, the VA would have to consult veterans groups, unions and other interested parties about plans to maintain or expand access to VA-sponsored healthcare when the VA was considering closing hospitals. Congressional committees would review those plans before they could be implemented.
The bill would permit the VA, which operates 172 hospitals and 800 other healthcare facilities in its $17.3 billion system, to close inpatient units only if other community hospitals or VA facilities could treat the veterans who would be diverted from the closed facilities.
The VA could designate hospitals for closure only if they were so underutilized or so old that they could no longer provide efficient or quality care. Closed hospitals, however, could be used for outpatient or long-term care, or could be leased.
The bill's passage by the House Veterans Affairs health subcommittee follows by three months a report from the General Accounting Office on the VA's capital expenditures.
The GAO, Congress' investigatory arm, said one-quarter of the VA's projected healthcare expenditures in federal fiscal 2000 are designated for building operation and maintenance. More than 40% of the VA's 4,700 buildings are at least 50 years old and likely to deteriorate rapidly in the near future.
In considering which hospitals the VA should close, the GAO identified 40 markets where the department has at least two hospitals competing to fill their empty beds.
Veterans groups had a mixed response to the bill. The Disabled American Veterans, for example, warned that closures could force veterans to wait longer for healthcare services.
But the Veterans of Foreign Wars said the bill may be a good idea as long as it increases veterans' access to care.