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Expansion of the Veterans Health Administration Network and Surgical Outcomes.

Graham LA, Schoemaker L, Rose L, Morris AM, Aouad M, Wagner TH. Expansion of the Veterans Health Administration Network and Surgical Outcomes. JAMA surgery. 2022 Dec 1; 157(12):1115-1123.

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IMPORTANCE: The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Choice Program (VCP) expanded health care access to community settings outside the VA for eligible patients. Little is known about the effect of VCP on access to surgery and postoperative outcomes. Since its initiation, care coordination issues, which are often associated with adverse postoperative outcomes, have been reported. Research findings on the association of VCP and postoperative outcomes are limited to only a few select procedures and have been mixed, potentially due to bias from unmeasured confounding. OBJECTIVE: To investigate the association of the VCP with access to surgery and postoperative outcomes using a nonrandomized controlled regression discontinuity design (RDD) to reduce the impact of unmeasured confounders. DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: This was a nonrandomized RDD study of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Participants included veterans enrolled in the VHA who required surgery between October 1, 2014, and June 1, 2019. INTERVENTIONS: The VCP, which expanded access to VA-paid community care for eligible veterans living 40 miles or more from their closest VA hospital. MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: Postoperative emergency department visits, inpatient readmissions, and mortality at 30 and 90 days. RESULTS: A total of 615?473 unique surgical procedures among 498?427 patients (mean [SD] age, 63.0 [12.9] years; 450?366 male [90.4%]) were identified. Overall, 94?783 procedures (15.4%) were paid by the VHA, and the proportion of VHA-paid procedures varied by procedure type. Patients who underwent VA-paid procedures were more likely to be women (9209 [12.7%] vs men, 38?771 [9.1%]), White race (VA paid, 54?544 [74.4%] vs VA provided, 310?077 [73.0%]), and younger than 65 years (VA paid, 36?054 [49.1%] vs 229?411 [46.0%] VA provided), with a significantly lower comorbidity burden (mean [SD], 1.8 [2.2] vs 2.6 [2.7]). The nonrandomized RDD revealed that VCP was associated with a slight increase of 0.03 in the proportion of VA-paid surgical procedures among eligible veterans (95% CI, 0.01-0.05; P? = .01). However, there was no difference in postoperative mortality, readmissions, or emergency department visits. CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Expanded access to health care in the VHA was associated with a shift in the performance of surgical procedures in the private sector but had no measurable association with surgical outcomes. These findings may assuage concerns of worsened patient outcomes resulting from care coordination issues when care is expanded outside of a single health care system, although it remains unclear whether these additional procedures were appropriate or improved patient outcomes.

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