Senator’s idea: Treat vets at any hospital

By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Mar 8, 2007 22:15:33 EST

The former chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee proposed the novel idea Thursday of allowing disabled veterans to seek treatment for service-connected injuries at any hospital they want, and not just from Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, now the senior Republican on the veterans’ committee, said issuing veterans an authorization card that would allow them to seek care anywhere could address two longstanding complaints: long waits to see a VA doctor, and long trips for veterans who live far from a VA hospitals.

While such a plan has the potential for explosive growth in health costs if a large number of veterans decided they wanted specialized care at one of the nation’s top hospitals, Craig said he didn’t think the cost would be so high because he doubts most service-disabled veterans would leave the VA system and because he doesn’t believe the VA is a great bargain in the first place.

Some 1.7 million veterans would have a choice on where to get care under his bill.

The bill, which he calls the Veterans Healthcare Empowerment Act, “is about my confidence in VA,” he said. “I just don’t think that many people will go elsewhere.”

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the current chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, had no immediate comment on Craig’s proposal. “We have not had time to review it,” said his committee spokeswoman, Jessica Scheufele.

Craig raised his idea after days of listening to Democrats in Congress and many veterans complain that VA is underfunding medical care. In particular, he pointed out that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been talking about providing veterans with the best quality health care possible without regard to the cost, which he finds excessive.

He is proposing a two-year experiment to see if veterans are so unhappy that they’re willing to leave the VA system.

“It is very simple,” he said. “If service-connected veterans leave in droves, we have learned something. But if veterans overwhelmingly stay — and I think they will — we have also learned something.”