WASHINGTON — An effort by the Department of Veterans Affairs to prevent some veterans from seeking health care outside its centers drew heavy criticism from lawmakers and a vocal Fox News ally of the president, who suggested the department’s bureaucracy could undermine a signature program of President Trump’s term.
That program, known as the Mission Act, permits veterans to seek primary care and mental health services outside the department’s system if they can prove they must drive at least 30 minutes to a Department of Veterans Affairs facility. The network of private providers and urgent care centers had been slowly expanding this year as those standards went into effect.
But concerns arose that at-risk veterans seeking outside care could expose themselves to the coronavirus or tax strained private health care resources.
So this week, a department official emailed the House and Senate committees on veterans’ affairs to say the department “proposes a temporary strategic pause in the Mission Act access standards for 90 days, or until the soonest possible time that routine care may safely resume.” The email said that “enforcement of the access standards will resume when routine care resumes.”
Reacting to news of the pause, Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host close to Mr. Trump, said on Twitter late Tuesday, “If true, this is a terrible decision by @DeptVetAffairs leadership that will only hurt vets.”
“At a moment like this, vets deserve MORE health care options — not less. @realdonaldtrump needs to stop this,” he added.
Mr. Hegseth speaks regularly with Mr. Trump about issues concerning the Department of Veterans Affairs, which he was once under consideration to lead.
By Wednesday morning, the White House sought to correct the impression that Robert L. Wilkie, the veterans secretary, was putting a pause on the Mission Act.
“Secretary Wilkie and the V.A. team are working to protect those who have worn the uniform against unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus while ensuring V.A. upholds the president’s priorities included in the Mission Act,” Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for the White House’s coronavirus task force, wrote in an email. “By issuing this guidance, the V.A. is not stopping or pausing the law, but rather ensuring the best medical interests of America’s veterans are met.”
At least four veterans have died from the coronavirus so far, and as of Wednesday, 365 have been sickened.
Christina Mandreucci, a spokeswoman for the department, said that while there would be no “pause,” it would review requested referrals for nonemergency care “on a case-by-case basis for immediate clinical need and with regard to the safety of the veteran when being seen in-person, regardless of wait time or drive time eligibility.”
Proponents of the law expressed unhappiness.
“I have serious concerns with the V.A. putting a temporary pause on community care,” said Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas and the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “When the V.A. cannot provide care to veterans, the V.A. is required under the Mission Act to send them to the community.”
The Mission Act has been strongly supported by the Concerned Veterans for America, a group that generally espouses conservative views and has influenced veterans’ policies under Mr. Trump.
“We urge the V.A. not to proceed with any policy proposal that would limit the ability of veterans to access care in the community if they believe it is the best option for them and capacity is available,” said Nate Anderson, the group’s executive director.
The two companies that the department has chosen to manage a network of health care providers and urgent care centers for veterans, Optum and TriWest, are introducing services across the country through a phased process, with completion scheduled this summer.
Representative Phil Roe, Republican of Tennessee, said he was seeking more guidance from Mr. Wilkie “about how and why V.A. made this decision and how veterans will continue to be cared for throughout this crisis, in V.A. and in the community.”
In addition to serving veterans, the department is legally designated as the backup health care system in national emergencies. But that function, known as the fourth mission, has yet to be activated, which is also drawing attention from Capitol Hill.
“While the Department of Veterans Affairs’ first priority will always be our nation’s veterans, we need all hands on deck when it comes to saving lives during this emergency,” said Senator Jon Tester of Montana, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Any further delay in allowing V.A. to fulfill its fourth mission will undoubtedly result in the deaths of Americans who are dependent on their government to act swiftly on their behalf.”