Bipartisan lawmaker group seeks more briefings on VA Mission Act, EHRs
Congressional leaders tasked with overseeing the Veterans Affairs Department have demanded more detailed briefings about the rollout of the expanded community care program due to launch in June and other major initiatives.
Senate VA Committee Chair Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) on Monday sent a bicameral, bipartisan letter demanding VA Secretary Robert Wilkie communicate frequently with Capitol Hill about the VA Mission Act's community care program implementation, the costly contract with Cerner to overhaul the department's electronic health records and other programs.
VA spokesperson Curtis Cashour said the department "appreciates the lawmakers' views" and will respond directly, but also noted that in 2018 the VA responded to vastly more congressional inquiries than the previous year and participated in significantly more congressional hearings, while also answering thousands of requests for information and nearly 42,000 constituent letters and inquiries originating from congressional offices.
"VA is more transparent than ever before, becoming the first hospital system in the nation to post its hospital wait times, opioid prescription rates, accountability and settlement info, and chief executive travel," Cashour said.
The lawmakers' letter acknowledges that Wilkie's team has provided staff briefings on the VA's implementation efforts, but called them "somewhat limited in scope and details. The lawmakers continued on to say that they expect more collaboration.
"As we begin a new Congress, we expect regular, detailed briefings to continue and that you will take a collaborative approach that maximizes transparency and demonstrates your intent that Congress be a full and true partner in implementation of these critical laws and initiatives," the lawmakers wrote. "We share the common goal of VA's success, and our hope is that early, frequent and fully transparent dialogue will allow VA and Congress to jointly head off the kind of serious missteps we have seen in some recent implementation efforts."
Last week Wilkie outlined the basics of how veterans would access care under the VA Mission Act, which consolidates all the department's community care programs into one. The criteria, known as access standards, set the measure for wait and drive times that the VA and private providers would need to meet.
Lawmakers are especially sensitive to the VA's success with the Mission Act since the messy and ultimately very expensive implementation of the VA Choice program, authorized by Congress in 2014.
In a bicameral hearing with Wilkie on the VA Mission Act's status in late December, lawmakers expressed frustration that they hadn't seen the department's draft proposals for the access standards that will ultimately shape the community care program.
The VA Mission Act is due to launch June 6, and the access standards need to be published in March, by law. They are subject to a public comment period.
Joining Isakson and Tester on the letter were the chair and ranking member of the House VA Committee, Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Phil Roe (R-Tenn.); and chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees funding the VA, Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), and Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), respectively.
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