Lawmakers are demanding reforms in how Veterans Affairs officials screen outside doctors for patient medical care after a recent Government Accountability Office review found the department’s referral list contains about 1,600 providers that are ineligible to treat veterans, including 601 who are dead.

“While [the list] represents a small percentage of the Veterans Community Care Program’s roughly 1.2 million active providers, they represent potential threats to veteran health and safety and risks for financial fraud,” a group of representatives wrote in a letter to VA health officials on Friday.

“We urge VA to review all ineligible providers identified by GAO and, as appropriate, deactivate them in the Community Care Network so veterans are not referred to them for care.”

The request — signed by Reps. Chris Pappas, D-N.H.; Tracey Mann, R-Kansas; Julia Brownley, D-Calif.; and Jack Bergman, R-Mich. — comes amid increasing scrutiny of VA’s Community Care program, which allows veterans to receive care from private-sector physicians but have the appointments paid for with taxpayer money.

The program has been a key part of VA health care for decades, but conservatives in recent years have pushed to expand it dramatically amid concerns of long wait times and specialist shortages at some VA medical centers.

But critics of that plan have said that department officials need to improve their oversight of Community Care providers first, to make sure they are meeting the same medical standards and expectations of VA physicians.

The latest GAO review appears to bolster that argument, noting that VA officials had failed to exclude a small but significant number of ineligible providers from the Community Care program.

Along with 601 deceased physicians, the list included 216 active providers who had a revoked medical license and 796 who have surrendered their medical licenses in response to an investigation.

One provider had a nursing license expire in 2016, was arrested for assault in 2018, and convicted of patient abuse in 2019. The individual was still added to the Community Care list later in 2019, a move that VA officials have now said was a clerical error.

“The vulnerabilities we identified … indicate that veterans may potentially be at risk of receiving care from unqualified providers,” the GAO report states.

The researchers offered 10 recommendations for reforms, to include monthly checks of all outside provider credentials to look for any concerning activity and better fraud control safeguards for the current application system.

VA officials in response said that they will enact reforms in coming months, with improvements in the periodic checks of provider credentials to start next month.

The lawmakers — all members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee — requested a report from the department on that progress by the end of February.

The full report is available on the GAO web site.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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