After months of criticism, the Veterans Administration has altered their interpretation of the Veterans Choice Act, which now makes it easier for veterans to access health care outside of the Veterans Administration system.

Under the Veterans Choice Act passed in 2014, veterans who have to wait 30 or more days for an appointment, or must travel over 40 miles to a VA facility, are eligible for care at a private facility outside of the VA. The program began to draw criticism almost immediately after the VA displayed a interpretation of the law that was different than what was originally intended. To be specific, the Veterans Administration would measure the 40-mile distance as a straight line, not the actual travel distance.

The straight line approach was problematic because many veterans live in rural areas or do not have straight access to VA facilities. The VA has since adjusted this rule, allowing veterans to plug the directions into a GPS system to calculate the driving distance.

Senators Johnny Isakson (R., Ga) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) made a joint statement about the change, “This is a common-sense adjustment to a rule that has the potential to significantly impact the success of the Veterans Choice Program.”

Even though this is a significant change, it is still an issue for some advocates. The rule states that veterans are eligible for outside care if they live 40 miles from any facility, and the VA does not take into account the capabilities of the facilities. A veteran may require special care or treatments that are not available at the nearest VA facility, requiring them to still travel hours to get the care they need.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, an advocacy group, made a statement about this issue, “The VFW is glad the Veterans Administration agreed to change the ‘crow flies’ measurement to actual driving distances, but the VA must now eliminate the 40-mile bubble they placed around their medical facilities. If a local VA cannot meet someone’s medical requirements, then it is absurd for VA to require them to drive hundreds of miles to another VA that can.”

The VA disputes that they can not make an interpretive change like that. They state that the law needs to be changed before eligibility can be expanded. The VA claims that changing the driving distance rule is still within the scope of the law despite the previous statement.

“We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more Veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” says Secretary Robert McDonald. “We appreciate the constructive feedback shared by Veterans and our partners to help us improve service to Veterans.”

There are other concerns regarding the Veterans Choice program. A report was released by the VFW showing that 8.6 million Veterans Choice Cards had been issued, but 80% of survey participants said they were not given the option of outside care even though they were eligible. Other advocacy groups stated that some veterans do not completely understand their eligibility and benefits.

One veteran has had issues with scheduling appointments even with the Veterans Choice card. Army veteran, Henry Taylor, signed up for the program recently and began experiencing severe shoulder pain. It took over two months to be seen for back pain and was finally diagnosed with two compressed disks on his spine as well as bone spurs.

Nearly 46,000 veterans have requested care, and over 45,000 appointments have been scheduled under the Veterans Choice program, according to the VA. The VA also claims that almost $7 billion has been spent on non-VA care through different programs.

Obama and McDonald faced criticism in February when they stated they might move some of the Veterans Choice Act funds for other VA purposes. The possibility that the program could be partially defunded before fully implemented has angered lawmakers.

The Archuleta Law Firm handles injury, death, and veterans medical malpractice claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. We handle claims in all 50 States and Worldwide. Our focus is helping Veterans, and the families of Veterans and Military Service Members in their claims involving Veterans (VA) Hospitals, Doctors and Clinics and Military Hospitals, Doctors and Clinics. We handle claims involving the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Air Force.

Wall Street Journal