The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation, delay or rescheduling of almost 20 million medical appointments for veterans.

Part of that is a result of many Veterans Affairs medical facilities being fully or partially shut down because of the pandemic. But that’s only half the story.

For those who can’t get care at a VA facility, community care under the VA MISSION Act should be an alternative. It isn’t working out that way.

The entire Massachusetts congressional delegation wrote to VA Secretary Denis McDonough last month to protest “reports of veterans being asked to travel to Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island for appointments, including a veteran with Multiple Sclerosis who had to drive 210 miles round trip in a blizzard to an appointment in Connecticut.”

But while we might not have reliable data on wait times at VA facilities, we do know how poorly a job VA is doing scheduling community care. “According to VA internal data from October 2019 through June 2020, veterans waited an average of 41.9 days for an appointment in the community, starting from the time he or she requested the appointment to the time the meeting occurred,” Federal News Network reported last fall. It all adds up to another wait-time scandal waiting to happen.

After inheriting this problem from the previous administration, that’s surely not how Secretary McDonough wants to begin his tenure.

The cancellation and delay of appointments is unacceptable

The VA Office of Inspector General determined that of the 7.3 million appointments canceled from March 15 through May 1, nearly a third (2.3 million) had no indication of follow-up or tracking at the time of the review. This is unacceptable. As we learned from the 2014 Phoenix VA Medical Center wait-time scandal, delayed health care and long wait times can kill veterans as surely as an improvised explosive device. How bad is it this time around?

Shocking as it might seem, we have no way of knowing what the real wait times are at VA facilities because the VA has not reported relevant data for almost two years, since implementation of the Community Care Program created by the VA MISSION Act began on June 6, 2019.

That’s because the VA is still using metrics established under the old Veterans Choice Program rather than those created for Community Care, which requires an appointment within 20 days of the date of request for primary care, mental health care and non institutional extended care services, or 28 days of the date of request for specialty care.

Secretary McDonough needs to fix the problem now

He needs to get a handle on the situation now. The first step is for the VA to finally report meaningful wait times based on the metrics provided by the MISSION Act Community Care regulation. Only then will we know how bad the situation is.

VA then needs to develop and implement a plan to follow up and track every veteran who gets an appointment at a VA facility or in the community in accordance with the access standards, in line with Secretary McDonough’s assurances.

“I promise to fight — every single day — to ensure that our veterans have the access to world-class, compassionate care they have earned,” Secretary McDonough said at his confirmation hearing. 

Since COVID-19 hit a year ago, veterans have not been getting timely access to the world-class care we deserve. We urge the new secretary to heed the words of his distinguished predecessor, Gen. Omar Bradley, “We are dealing with (veterans), not procedures; with their problems, not ours.”

Darin Selnick is a senior adviser for Concerned Veterans for America and an Air Force veteran. He served as veterans’ affairs adviser on President Donald Trump’s Domestic Policy Council and as a senior adviser to the VA secretary.

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