Get ready for the Vets: Referrals to soar at private practices

Robert McDonald

Waves of veterans who need care will be coming off waiting lists and into private doctors' offices.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in fact, has recently made more than 838,000 referrals for soldiers to receive care from private physicians, VA Secretary Robert McDonald (pictured) said Wednesday at the AMVETS national conference in Memphis.

That's a 25 percent spike — 166,000 additional referrals — over the same two-month period a year ago.

"Each one of these referrals, on average, results in seven visits or appointments,” McDonald explained. “So we’re talking about more than 1.1 million additional appointments in the private sector just from increased referrals.”

McDonald, a West Point grad and former Army Ranger himself, later became CEO of Proctor & Gamble. Now, two weeks into his post as head of the VA, he vowed to use that experience to change the agency into a more veteran-centric institution.

"We are going to judge the success of our individual and collective efforts against a single metric — customer outcomes, veterans’ outcomes," McDonald added.

In coming months, VA will be examining how it can more efficiently and effectively use resources to serve veterans. A board of physicians will advise the agency on best practices for delivering timely and quality care.

These changes come with the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 that President Obama signed into law last week. The legislation allocates $15 billion to VA over the next three years. VA will spend $5 billion to hire physicians and other medical staff and improve its infrastructure. The remaining $10 billion will fund "additional purchased care while we build the internal capability to meet current demand," McDonald added.

The bill is largely viewed as a reaction to many reports that some veterans died while waiting for treatment at VA facilities, and that workers may have covered up scheduling problems. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last month amid the findings.

From all indications, that means many more opportunities for private physicians to serve those who served for all Americans.