Many veterans, physicians and congressmen are complaining that the new Department of Veterans Affairs “choice card” program which allows veterans in certain circumstances to visit private doctors for care instead of traveling long distances to VA facilities just isn’t working.
The key sticker is an interpretation over mileage — that veterans who have been waiting over 30 days for a VA appointment and live more than 40 miles from a VA facility can go to a private physician. However, how the VA interprets “40 miles,” whether actual driving distance or “as the crow flies,” means in practice that some veterans have been forced to drive hundreds of miles for the medical care they need.
The “choice card” program results from an attempt to fix the scandal-ridden VA, which covered up veterans seeking care being left on waiting lists, sometimes for years, resulting in the deaths of many who never received an appointment.
As one primary care physician told the Post: “The choice card has created more confusion and aggravation than improving access to clinical care, though it did gain political points,” causing him and other physicians to be “confused by the choice card system” and unable to “understand how to implement it.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, has co-sponsored HR577, which directs the VA “to provide healthcare at non-VA facilities to veterans who reside more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA medical facility providing the care they seek.”
Huelskamp, citing one veteran in his district who was forced to drive 340 miles one-way for coronary care, said, “refusing to allow these men and women to choose their local hospital and doctor and forcing them to drive huge distances in simply unacceptable – they deserve better,” the Post reported.
The bill also takes into account the type of care a veteran needs, meaning that the existence of a VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic near the veteran would not restrict the veterans’ use of the “choice card” if the clinic could not provide the care they require.
Obama’s budget is asking to reallocate $10 billion Congress approved last year to help veterans receive care, Stars and Stripes reports.
The VA bases its request on the fact that only 27,000 veterans out of 9 million who use VA facilities have used the “choice card” option.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald told Huelskamp he favored making the “choice card” program permanent and agreed that the interpretation of the “40-mile” restriction needs to change and added, “I agree with your point of view that distance from the place you can’t get the service seems like a relatively weak measure, but that’s what’s resulted from the current appropriation,” C-SPAN reported.