Earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") proposed new access standards for community care as part of the implementation of the MISSION Act, which President Trump signed into law last June. One goal of the MISSION Act is to provide veterans with greater access to medical care by allowing them to use private care outside the VA system.
Although several confusing avenues currently exist for veterans to qualify for outside care, the new access standards would consolidate and simplify the process by basing eligibility on average drive times and appointment wait times. For primary care, mental health and non-institutional extended care services, the VA is proposing that veterans who must drive an average of 30 minutes for services, or who must wait longer than 20 days for an appointment, may seek care with an eligible community provider. For specialty care, the VA is proposing more stringent standards - a 60-minute drive time or a longer than 28-day wait to obtain an appointment. Veterans will also have access to urgent care that gives them the choice to receive certain services when and where they need it. The new access standards are set to go into effect in June.
According to the VA's Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Submission, community care accounted for around $9.7 billion in 2018. Under the new access standards, the VA expects the number of veterans eligible for community care to almost triple. Of the $66 billion the VA spent on health care services in 2018, excluding community care, $38.5 billion went to ambulatory services, $14 billion went to inpatient care and $8 billion went to mental health care. The remainder went to prosthetics, dental care, and rehabilitation. With the expansion of access for veterans, a larger portion of these services will likely be supplied by community care providers.
Under the MISSION Act, the VA is required to establish networks to ensure veterans get access to community care from eligible providers. Eligible community care providers include providers who participate in Medicare, aging and disability resource centers, federally qualified health centers, and centers for independent living. Unlike prior community care programs which failed to make timely payments to providers (e.g., Veteran's Choice Program ("VCP")), the VA will be required to reimburse services under a prompt payment standard (i.e., within 45 calendar days upon receipt of a clean paper claim, or 30 calendar days upon receipt of a clean electronic claim).
Providers who wish to provide services for veterans must contract with their region's Community Care Network ("CCN") administrator. The CCN is a set of contracts awarded to as many as four private sector contractors who are tasked with developing and administering six regional networks of high-performing licensed health care providers. To date, contracts for regions 1-3, which include the East, South and Midwest, have been awarded to Optum Public Sector Solutions, Inc., a subsidiary of UnitedHealth. Following the deployment of the CCN, the selected contractor in each region will begin contracting with providers.
However, until the CCN is deployed nationwide, providers who meet certain eligibility requirements can partner with TriWest Healthcare Alliance's community care network, the VCP administrator during the transition. Under the VCP, community providers must meet these eligibility requirements:
- Accept Medicare rates;
- Meet Medicare Conditions for Coverage and Conditions of Participation or other criteria established by the VA;
- Be in compliance with all applicable federal and state regulatory requirements;
- Have same or similar credentials as VA staff;
- Submit a copy of the medical records to the TPA for medical care and services provided to Veterans for inclusion in the VA record; and,
- Be eligible according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Exclusion Program.
The Veteran's Choice Program will statutorily sunset after June 6, 2019, so providers should be cognizant of potential changes in provider eligibility standards as the MISSION Act takes effect.
Colin Luke is a partner and Practice Group Leader for Healthcare Compliance and Operations in the Birmingham office of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP.