WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is exaggerating the progress he's made on his campaign promise to provide veterans with quick medical treatment from private doctors if they're dissatisfied with Department of Veterans Affairs care.
Speaking at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday, Trump prematurely described VA benefits that have yet to be implemented as immediately available and a "big success."
His newly signed law seeking to expand the private-sector Veterans Choice program will take at least a year to be implemented. The program has also struggled to meet a standard of providing timely medical appointments within 30 days, a problem that even his new VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, has acknowledged might not be fixed soon.
A look at the claims and the reality behind them:
TRUMP: "We passed Veterans Choice, the biggest thing ever. ... It has got to be the biggest improvement you can have. So now if you can't get the treatment you need in a timely manner, people used to wait two weeks, three weeks, eight weeks, they couldn't get to a doctor. You will have the right to see a private doctor immediately, and we will pay for it."
THE FACTS: The care provided under the Choice program is not as immediate as Trump suggests, nor is it likely to be the "biggest thing" ever. Currently only veterans who endure waits of at least 30 days for an appointment at a VA facility are eligible to receive care immediately from private doctors at government expense, a standard that the VA is frequently unable to meet.
Under a newly expanded Choice program that will take at least a year to implement, veterans will still have to meet certain criteria before they can see a private physician.
A recent Government Accountability Report found that despite the Choice program's guarantee of providing an appointment within 30 days, veterans waited an average of 51 to 64 days. Pressed at his confirmation hearing last month, Wilkie declined to commit the VA to meeting the 30-day standard, pledging instead to push interim fixes and better training for VA schedulers to help speed appointments.
It's also unclear whether the expanded Choice program will prove to be the "biggest thing ever." The new law gives the VA secretary wide authority to decide when veterans can bypass the VA, based on whether they receive "quality" care, but the program could be restricted by escalating costs.
TRUMP: "We're greatly expanding telehealth and walk-in clinics so our veterans can get anywhere, at any time, they can get what they need, they can learn about the problem and they don't necessarily have to drive long distances and wait. It's been a very big success."
THE FACTS: It's not a success at all because it hasn't started.
A new benefit giving veterans access to walk-in clinics such as MinuteClinics won't begin for another year, and the care won't always be freely provided "anywhere, at any time." Only enrolled veterans who have used VA health care services in the previous two years would be able to get care at private walk-in clinics. After two visits, veterans could be subject to higher co-payments charged by the VA.
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