VA Secretary Bob McDonald visits the Phoenix VA Medical Center on Aug. 9. (Veterans Affairs)
Veterans waiting for a primary care appointment at a VA medical facility may now be able to get one at a private physician under a program that allows veterans to seek medical treatment outside the Veterans Affairs Department.
VA announced Wednesday that primary care has been added to its Patient-Centered Community Care, or PC3, program.
The initiative originally was designed to provide specialty care, in-patient and mental health treatment to veterans who could not access a VA hospital or clinic because of distance or prolonged wait times and their regular facility.
But it was expanded to include primary care in an effort to expedite treatment to patients sitting on wait lists, according to a VA release.
“With the addition of primary care services, VA medical centers can now use PC3 to provide additional types of care in order to reduce wait times,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a prepared statement.
In September, VA awarded contracts worth up to $9.4 billion over five years to two health care companies to provide specialty care and mental health treatment in the private sector under the PC3 program.
Former Tricare West Region contractor TriWest Healthcare Alliance and Health Net Federal Services, the company that manages the Tricare North Region, run the program.
According to VA, the change is part of the department’s “Accelerated Care Initiative,” a massive effort to move veterans — many of whom have waited months for care — off appointment wait lists.
VA has been under fire since April for allegations that some facilities gamed the appointment system to meet VA metrics and excessive wait times for appointments and consults may have lead to patient deaths.
The scandal led to the resignation of several top officials, including VA Secretary Erik Shinseki, who left the department in May.
While VA facilities have had the authority to outsource care, many facilities have been reluctant to use the option and in turn, many veterans prefer to use the VA, which they perceive as a benefit earned with military service.
VA spent $5 billion on private-sector care in 2013 and launched the PC3 program in January to provide care to veterans using established health care provider networks.
TriWest President David McIntyre described the PC3 program as a “release valve” for overburdened VA facilities.
“The first place care should be rendered is in the federal system with federal providers where it can be done. And where it can’t, we are that valve,” McIntyre told Military Times last month.
For more information on obtaining private medical care through VA, the department recommends turning to its non-VA care web site.