Tester Rolls Out Plan to Improve the Veterans Choice Program in Montana

Senator’s Bills Will Cut Red Tape, Hold VA Contractors Accountable

(U.S. Senate) – U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, today rolled out a three-pronged approach to fixing the VA Choice Program in Montana and increasing access to timely care for more of Montana’s veterans in their communities.

Tester’s plan includes legislation to cut red tape and expedite care, a bill to hold VA contractors accountable, and a call for the VA to cut out the middle man so Montana veterans can book appointments faster.

First, Tester is introducing the Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act to authorize the VA to be the primary payer under the Choice Program, reducing veterans’ out-of-pocket costs and aligning the Choice Program with the VA’s other community care programs.

“The Choice Program was designed to serve veterans by improving access to care, but it’s been a bureaucratic mess,” said Tester. “I consistently hear from veterans in Montana about the red tape they have to cut through to get in to see their doctors. This legislation will make sure that veterans aren’t bearing the brunt of the costs and providers are getting paid in a more timely manner for caring for veterans.”

This legislation ensures that veterans’ access to care isn’t disrupted by the looming sunset of the program. The Choice Program is scheduled to sunset on August 7, 2017, and currently veterans aren’t able to schedule appointments that would fall after that date. Tester’s bill allows the VA to access all of the funding initially appropriated for the program.

Additionally, the bill would improve the sharing of medical records between the VA and community providers in Choice to better coordinate care for veterans and connect them to care in a more timely manner.

Tester is introducing the VA Performance Accountability and Contractor Transparency Act, or PACT Act, to increase the transparency and accountability of private companies that contract with the VA to provide services for veterans.

Tester’s bill requires the VA to make public all contracts over $100 million, and include performance metrics in those contracts. It also requires those private companies who are receiving taxpayer dollars to report on their performance and progress to Congress.

“Too often, third party contractors are awarded big VA contracts that cost taxpayers millions and then aren’t held accountable for the services they provide to veterans,” said Tester. “It’s past time that we hold contractors like Health Net accountable for dropping the ball. My bill increases transparency and makes government more efficient.”

The VA spends billions annually on contracts for IT work, health care, construction, and more. The Choice Program’s administrators, like Health Net, are paid millions to facilitate community care programs across the country, but often do not provide performance data to Congress when there are complaints about their service.

Under the PACT Act, VA contracts must include the following common-sense measures to ensure accountability:

  • Measureable metrics related to cost, schedule, and meeting requirements
  • Measureable metrics related to the use of award or incentive fees
  • A plan of action and milestones
  • Authority for the Secretary to charge a financial penalty to the contractor if their performance does not meet quality standards

In addition, private contractors who are awarded contracts over $100 million are required to do the following:

  • Document their work so the Secretary can review and validate quality
  • Provide reports to Congress on their performance to the metrics in their contract
  • Provide information to oversight committees when they receive notice that their service is failing to meet contractual standards 
  • Provide updates to Congress about any modifications made to the contract

Tester is calling is on Secretary Shulkin to allow VA Montana to schedule Choice Program appointments directly for veterans. This change will help reduce wait times for Montana veterans who are currently forced to book their appointments through Health Net, a VA government contractor that has struggled to book veterans’ appointments in a timely manner.

“While we have made progress in some areas, I see us losing ground in others,” wrote Tester. “We continue to lose providers in Montana, and I see Health Net failing in its core responsibilities of scheduling appointments, contracting with providers to treat veterans, and paying those providers timely. Today, I ask you to commit to modifying your contract with Health Net as soon as possible for VA staff at Fort Harrison and other Montana facilities to take over scheduling duties for Choice.”

Tester’s letter to Shulkin is available HERE. The Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act can be found online HERE. The PACT Act can be found online HERE.

A summary of Tester’s bills is available HERE.