Twice as Many Vets Will Now Be Eligible for Non-VA Care
After pressure, department changes Choice program requirement related to calculating a vet’s distance from the nearest VA facility.
More veterans will be able to access health care outside of the Veterans Affairs medical system under a change the department announced on Tuesday.
VA has tweaked one of the Choice program’s eligibility requirements -- the criterion related to a vet’s distance from the nearest VA facility -- under pressure from veterans, lawmakers and veteran advocates. Instead of calculating geographic distance based on a straight line or, “as the crow flies,” the department will determine eligibility based on the actual driving distance between the veteran’s home and the nearest VA medical facility. The department anticipates that the change will double the number of vets eligible for the Choice program, which allows certain vets to receive health care temporarily outside the VA, if the department is unable to schedule an appointment for the vet within 30 days, or the vet lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
The department plans to publish an interim rule soon in the Federal Register making the revision official, and will notify vets via letter about the revised mileage calculation. The department will determine driving distance as calculated with commercial mapping tools that are “consistent with VA’s long-established beneficiary travel program.” The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will hold a Tuesday hearing on the Choice program’s 40-mile rule.
The program is a key component of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which President Obama signed into law last summer. The department began sending Choice cards to eligible veterans at the end of last year, mailing them out in three phases. But the roll-out created confusion, and many vets who believed they were eligible for the Choice program were turned away. Since the Choice program took effect in November, more than 45,000 medical appointments have been scheduled, according to the VA.
“We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” said VA Secretary Bob McDonald in a March 24 statement, adding the change was based on “constructive feedback” from veterans and other stakeholders. “VA looks forward to the ongoing support of our partners as we continue to make improvements to this new program,” he said.
The Choice program runs through Aug. 7, 2017, or until the $10 billion fund is “exhausted,” according to the Nov. 5, 2014, interim rule published in the Federal Register on the program’s implementation and eligibility.
The administration’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal recommended shifting any potential excess money from the Choice program into other areas, but lawmakers quickly shot down that idea in February saying it could end the program prematurely. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the proposal a “non-starter.” As of March 17, nearly 46,000 vets have sought to receive care using the Choice program, according to VA data.
Miller on Tuesday praised the department for the distance calculation change, calling it “common sense.” But he also said it would take more to ensure VA implements the program successfully, citing a new survey from the Veterans of Foreign Wars that found VA didn’t offer Choice program enrollment to more than 80 percent of eligible vets who participated in the survey.
“Veterans deserve more choices when it comes to their health care decisions, and it’s up to VA to start providing them, just as Congress and the president intended,” Miller said.
Many others have criticized the Choice program and its implementation so far, including The Daily Show ’s Jon Stewart in this March 23 clip: