Officials also are investigating claims that VA employees have falsified appointment records to cover up delays in care. An initial review of 17 people who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix found that none of their deaths appeared to have been caused by delays in treatment.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.
The directive announced Saturday should make it easier for veterans to get medical care at non-VA facilities, according to an agency spokeswoman.
The VA spent about $4.8 billion last year on medical care at non-VA hospitals and clinics, spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said. That amounts to about 10% of healthcare costs for the Veterans Health Administration, the agency's healthcare arm.
It was not clear how much the new initiative would cost, Dillon said.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, welcomed Shinseki's announcement, but questioned why it took so long. Reports about the veterans at the Phoenix hospital surfaced more than a month ago.
"It appears the department is finally starting to take concrete steps to address the problem," Miller said Saturday, calling the directive "a welcome change from the department's previous approach, which was to wait months for the results of yet another investigation into a problem we already know exists."
Meanwhile, in his weekly radio and Internet address, President Barack Obama is drawing a connection between Memorial Day and the scandal over allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs hospitals.
Obama says recent weeks have shown how much more the U.S. must do to ensure veterans get the care they deserve. He says it's a sacred obligation and one of the causes of his presidency.