Key Issues > Managing Risks and Improving VA Health Care - High Risk Issue
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Managing Risks and Improving VA Health Care - High Risk Issue

Risks to the timeliness, cost-effectiveness, quality, and safety of veterans’ health care, along with other persistent weaknesses raise serious concerns about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ management and oversight of its health care system.

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This key issue page is related to an area on GAO’s 2017 High Risk Update and will be updated shortly. In the meantime, visit the related High Risk area for the newest information.

As stated in GAO's 2015 High Risk report, in response to serious and longstanding problems with veterans’ access to care, which were highlighted in a series of congressional hearings in the spring and summer of 2014, Congress enacted the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (Pub. L. No. 113-146, 128 Stat. 1754), which provides $15 billion in new funding for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care. Generally, this law requires VA to offer veterans the option to receive hospital care and medical services from a non-VA provider when a VA facility cannot provide an appointment within 30 days, or when veterans reside more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility. Under the law, VA received $10 billion to cover the expected increase in utilization of non-VA providers to deliver health care services to veterans. The $10 billion is available until expended and is meant to supplement VA’s current budgetary resources for medical care. Further, the law appropriated $5 billion to increase veterans’ access to care by expanding VA’s capacity to deliver care to veterans by hiring additional clinicians and improving the physical infrastructure of VA’s facilities. It is therefore critical that VA ensures its resources are being used in a cost-effective manner to improve veterans’ timely access to health care.

VA operates one of the largest health care delivery systems in the nation. As of fiscal year 2014, VA was operating an expansive system of health care facilities, including 150 medical centers and more than 800 community-based outpatient clinics nationwide. In the years since the United States began conducting military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, enrollment in the VA health care system has increased significantly—from 6.8 million veterans in fiscal year 2002 to 8.9 million veterans in fiscal year 2013. Consequently, VA has faced a growing demand by veterans for its health care services, a trend that is expected to continue. For example, the total number of annual outpatient medical appointments VA provided increased by 39.9 million visits (or about 85 percent) between fiscal years 2002 and 2013. Over that same period, Congress provided steady increases in VA’s annual health care budget, with amounts more than doubling, increasing from $23.0 billion to $55.5 billion between fiscal years 2002 and 2013. Despite these substantial budget increases, for more than a decade there have been numerous reports—by GAO, VA’s Office of the Inspector General, and others—of VA facilities failing to provide timely health care. In some cases, the delays in care or VA’s failure to provide care at all have reportedly resulted in harm to veterans.

While timely and cost-effective access to needed health care services is essential, it also is imperative that VA ensures the quality and safety of the services it provides. With the increased utilization of non-VA providers that is expected to occur as a result of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, veterans may be required to navigate multiple complex health care systems—the VA health care system and those of non-VA providers—to obtain needed health care services. Coordination of care between VA and non-VA providers is critical. Without it, there is increased risk of unfavorable health outcomes for veterans. For example, a lack of care coordination may lead to unnecessary duplication of services, which is not only costly, but may also pose health risks to veterans who may receive care that is not needed. Moreover, the quality of care may be adversely affected if important clinical information is not promptly communicated between VA and non-VA providers. Safeguarding the quality and safety of health care services provided within VA facilities is also essential. A series of infectious disease outbreaks at several VA facilities over the past several years—and allegations that VA officials may have withheld information about the outbreaks from the public—have raised concerns about the effectiveness of patient safety practices at its facilities.

These risks to the timeliness, cost-effectiveness, quality, and safety of veterans' health care, along with other persistent weaknesses we have identified in recent years, raise serious concerns about VA's management and oversight of its health care system. Based on these concerns, GAO concluded that VA health care is a high-risk area and added it to the High Risk List in 2015.

This High Risk Report is updated every two years, at the start of each new Congress. For more information on this High Risk Issue, see What We Found and What Remains to Be Done.

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

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2015 Update to GAO's High Risk ListWednesday, February 11, 2015