VA exploring idea of merging health system with Pentagon
WASHINGTON (AP) — As part of its effort to expand private health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs is exploring the possibility of merging its health system with the Pentagon's, a cost-saving measure that veterans groups say could threaten the viability of VA hospitals and clinics.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour called the plan a potential "game-changer" that would "provide better care for veterans at a lower cost to taxpayers," but he provided no specific details.
Griffin Anderson, a spokesman for the Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the proposal – developed without input from Congress – would amount to a merger of the VA's Choice and the military's TRICARE private health care programs. Committee Democrats independently confirmed the discussions involved TRICARE.
News of the plan stirred alarm from veterans groups, who said they had not been consulted, even as VA urges a long-term legislative fix for Choice by year's end.
Health care experts also expressed surprise that VA would consider a TRICARE merger to provide private care for millions of active-duty troops, military retirees and veterans. The two departments generally serve very different patient groups – older, sicker veterans treated by VA and generally healthier service members, retirees and their families covered by TRICARE.
TRICARE is insurance that is paid by the government, but uses private doctors and hospitals. The VA provides most of its care via medical centers and clinics owned and run by the federal government, though veterans can also see private doctors through VA's Choice program with referrals by VA if appointments aren't readily available.
"My overarching concern is these are very dramatic changes in the way health care is delivered to veterans," said Carrie Farmer, a senior policy researcher on military care at Rand Corp., who has conducted wide-ranging research for VA. "There haven't been studies on what the consequences are in terms of both costs and quality of care."
Navy Commander Sarah Higgins, a Pentagon spokeswoman, confirmed it was exploring with VA "many possible opportunities to strengthen and streamline the health of our service members and veterans." She declined to comment on specifics "unless and until there is something to announce."
In its statement to The Associated Press, Cashour explained VA Secretary David Shulkin was working with the White House and the Pentagon to explore "the general concept" of integrating VA and Pentagon health care, building upon an already planned merger of electronic health care records between VA and the Pentagon. Because Shulkin has said an overhaul of VA's electronic medical records won't be completed for another seven to eight years, an effort such as a TRICARE merger couldn't likely happen before then.