Tester Opening Statement for Oversight Hearing of Veterans Community Care Program

(U.S. Senate) – Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Jon Tester today questioned the head of the VA’s implementation of the new Veterans Community Care Program.

The following is Tester's opening statement, as prepared for delivery:

Dr. Stone, thank you for being here today.

This Committee worked hand-in-hand with the Administration and Veterans Service Organizations in developing the MISSION Act.

It was the result of compromise, and the product of years of work.  It sought to consolidate VA’s multiple community care programs into one streamlined program that made sense for veterans, community providers and taxpayers.

When VA couldn’t provide care in a timely manner, the aim was to ensure veterans could access that care in their communities.

In places like Montana, where VA has failed to place enough emphasis on hiring physicians, that route to community care has always been critical.

But since the Mission Act was signed into law, my concern is that VA’s primary focus is supplanting in-house care, as opposed to supplementing that care when it makes the most sense for veterans. 

And VA is doing so without the benefit of having completed thorough market assessments that would confirm what the community can – and can NOT - actually offer.

In its rush to open the door to the private sector, my concern is that VA is outsourcing its responsibility to ensure veterans receive timely and high-quality care.

When VA sends veterans into the community without first knowing if that care can be provided in a timely manner, it is outsourcing its responsibility.   

When VA sends veterans into the community for care of lower quality, it is outsourcing its responsibility.

In writing the MISSION Act, our intent was never to send veterans into the community for care that is less timely and of lower quality. 

In fact, we specifically required VA to ensure that community providers could meet the same access standards the Department established for itself.

But now, we find that VA is establishing one set of rules for itself and no rules for the private sector. 

And it is doing so while knowing that, on average, VA outperforms the private sector in terms of timeliness and quality. 

Not to mention, VA is doing this without a firm grasp for how much it will cost American taxpayers. 

And it comes on the heels of VA saying it would consider the performance of its facilities when making resource allocation decisions.

So on one hand, VA doesn’t have a clear understanding of how much this Program will cost.

And on the other, VA openly states that it would make funding decisions based on whether its facilities are meeting the standards it fails to enforce on the private sector. 

What I see is behavior that smacks of a deliberate effort – not to implement the best policy but to carry out a political agenda.

Dr. Stone, I know that you are a straight shooter. And there is no doubt in my mind that the policies you advocate are with the best interests of veterans in mind.

But as the VA’s chief witness today, you need to explain why the Department’s access standards offer the best option for veterans – I’m not just talking about veterans who opt for the private sector, I’m also talking about those who utilize VA care.

And you will also need to assure this Committee that the Program you’re implementing will be ready-to-go on June 6th.

Right now, it’s not clear whether the technology VA needs to carry-out this Program, such as the Decision Support Tool, will be ready for implementation.

And not just ready for use – but with VA personnel appropriately trained on how it works.

And if it’s not ready to go and folks haven’t been adequately trained – that VA has a viable backup in place.

VA has had a full year to get this Program up-and-going.  If veterans are going to see a delay in care because the Program isn’t ready-to-go, you need to tell us now.

Thank you Mr. Chairman for calling this important hearing.

And Dr. Stone, thank you and your team for being here.