WASHINGTON -- The Veterans Affairs Department wants to send veterans with service-connected medical problems to the front of the line when it comes to receiving medical treatment at VA facilities.
VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi issued a new directive to all VA medical facilities requiring that "priority access" be given to qualifying veterans seeking appointments for treatment.
The directive covers hospitalization and outpatient care, and does not apply to veterans seeking care for medical problems not related to a service-connected disability.
Priority access, Principi explained, means that when qualifying veterans come to a VA treatment facility for inpatient or outpatient care, they will receive an appointment within 30 days. "It's really as simple as that," he said. Veterans seeking treatment need only let the administrative clerk or nurse know of their service-connected disability status, the secretary added.
If a VA facility is unable to schedule an appointment within the 30-day time limit, an appointment must be arranged for care at another VA facility, or at a facility under contract in the private sector.
"I've always felt that it is important to give veterans with service-connected disabilities a priority for care," he said. "I want to make sure that those who have disability related to military service have a high priority for health care, whether it is inpatient or outpatient, and this new priority scheme is to ensure that those who are disabled go to the 'front of the line.'"
The new policy will not be without its challenges. Some 25 million veterans are in VA's health care system, and the department reports the number of veterans seeking medical care has risen significantly, from 2.9 million in 1995 to nearly 5 million in 2003. The VA operates more than 1,300 medical facilities, including 162 hospitals and 800 outpatient clinics, but officials report the increase in veterans seeking care "outstrips VA's capacity to treat them."
The secretary acknowledged that veterans have suffered long waits for appointments at medical facilities in some parts of the country, but he said the goal for his department will be to reduce those lines and to ensure that veterans are cared for in a timely manner.
In the past, priority access to health care went only to veterans with disabilities rated at 50 percent or more; for severely disabled veterans, priority is extended for non- service-connected medical problems, according to VA guidelines. However, Principi said, the new directive now makes priority access available to all veterans injured in service to the country.
He said the VA was established to care for the men and women who served in the armed forces, and that "we should never lose sight of that." He said his department's priority must "always be the men and women disabled in service to their country."
In addition, Principi said his department will work harder to reduce the backlog of disability claims for veterans. And he said VA is making "tremendous progress" in that effort.
"They've shown renewed commitment ensuring that if a veteran files a claim for disability compensation, he or she doesn't have to wait six months to a year. We are going to get that claim decided in 100 days or less."