Watchdog asks judge to end VA ‘stonewalling,’ identify officials behind health care restrictions
A watchdog group advocating on behalf of veterans on Friday asked a federal judge to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to follow a prior court order and explain its implementation of a law giving veterans the option of private sector care, including details of how senior officials may be trying to discourage veterans from using that option.
The bipartisan MISSION Act gave millions of veterans the right to access private care outside the VA system if wait times at VA are too long or when it’s in a veteran’s best interest. But veterans and lawmakers have said the Biden administration's VA has worked to limit access to this new benefit, and VA officials have said publicly they are worried about the prospect that too many veterans might prefer private care to VA care.
Last year, Americans for Prosperity Foundation sued the VA to gain access to documents related to VA's implementation of the MISSION Act, and in July 2022, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered VA to comply with that request. The order committed VA to producing 500 pages of records per month.
Groups like Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) say the judge’s order has revealed documents that show the VA is actively working against the idea of private-sector choice. For example, documents reveal the VA is lowballing patient wait times in order to make them ineligible for private-sector care, and has issued training documents instructing VA health care workers not to discuss private care options with veterans.
'Based on the initial FOIA investigation, we know that VA is not following the VA MISSION Act law and is denying veterans timely and convenient community care they want and need,' said Darin Selnick, a senior adviser to CVA and former top adviser to VA Secretaries David Shulkin and Robert Wilkie.
But the VA so far has not turned over any documents that explain where these policy directives come from, and which senior officials signed off on them. CVA said part of the problem is that the department has mostly been handing over duplicative files.
'Unfortunately, the agency’s disclosure efforts have been lackluster,' said the Friday filing, which was submitted to the court by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. 'The overwhelming majority of records produced to AFPF comprises duplicate copies of a handful of non-email attachments, and the agency has avoided explaining why this is the case.'
The new filing asks the court to order the VA to produce at least 750 pages of 'non-duplicative' documents each month, in the hopes of getting closer to who at the department or in the White House might be behind the effort to stymie the MISSION Act.
The filing said its aim is to 'bring to light guidance or directives that may have been issued by top VA officials or the White House concerning proper interpretation.'
'The VA's stonewalling tactics suggest they are desperate to hide additional FOIA documents that we suspect will show which senior VA officials are responsible for denying veterans lifesaving care and why they did it,' Selnick said. 'Veterans, Congress and the public deserve to know the truth so VA officials can be held accountable for their actions.'
'Somebody had to say, ‘do it,’ and somebody had to have a reason to say, ‘do it,’' Selnick added.
CVA and others have said one clear piece of evidence that the VA is trying to push veterans away from private sector care is that VA took down a link that explained MISSION Act benefits to veterans. Now, that link takes veterans to a page called 'Choose VA,' which explains VA benefits.
'The records at issue touch on fundamental questions about the government’s integrity in implementing [the law] and regulating American veterans’ timely access to quality healthcare,' the filing said.
VA has until mid-January to respond to the new court filing.
'While we are unable to comment on pending litigation, VA remains committed to delivering the absolute-best health outcomes to veterans—whether that’s in our system or through care in the community,' VA spokesman Terrence Hayes told Fox News Digital.
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