Some ailing veterans can now use their federal health care benefits at CVS "MinuteClinics" to treat minor illnesses and injuries, under a pilot program announced Tuesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The new program, currently limited to the Phoenix area, comes three years after the VA faced allegations of chronically long wait times at its centers, including its Phoenix facility, which treats about 120,000 veterans.
The Phoenix pilot program is a test-run by VA Secretary David Shulkin who is working on a nationwide plan to reduce veterans' wait times.
Veterans would not be bound by current restrictions under the VA's Choice program, which limits outside care to those who have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment or have to drive more than 40 miles to a facility. Instead, Phoenix VA nurses staffing the medical center's help line will be able to refer veterans to MinuteClinics for government-paid care when "clinically appropriate."
Shulkin has made clear he'd like a broader collaboration of "integrated care" nationwide between the VA and private sector in which veterans have wider access to private doctors. But, he wants the VA to handle all scheduling and "customer service" — something that veterans groups generally support but government auditors caution could prove unwieldy and expensive.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump plans to sign legislation to temporarily extend the $10 billion Choice program until its money runs out, pending the administration's plan due out by fall. That broader plan would have to be approved by Congress.
"Our number one priority is getting veterans' access to care when and where they need it," said Baligh Yehia, the VA's deputy undersecretary for health for community care. "The launch of this partnership will enable VA to provide more care for veterans in their neighborhoods."