VA Choice Program must work better for our veterans

When our men and women in uniform complete their military service, they fulfill their solemn vow and commitment to our nation. It is our duty to honor our commitment to them. Unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) too often fails in fulfilling its pledge to provide quality medical care to our nation’s veterans. 

Thousands of veterans are still struggling to access the care they were promised through the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (Choice Act). In the wake of the wait-list scandal last year that exposed systemic failures and mismanagement within the VA, Congress came together to pass the bipartisan Choice Act – legislation that promised to give veterans the choice to seek medical care outside of the VA.

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The Choice Act created the Veterans Choice Program which was supposed to allow veterans access to local health care if they cannot receive the care they need at a VA facility within 40 miles of their home, or their wait time for an appointment at a VA facility is more than 30 days. But the VA has taken a flawed approach to implementing this 40-mile rule.

By choosing to take into account only the distance of a VA medical facility from a veteran’s home and not whether that facility can actually provide the services the veteran needs, the VA has left many of our most vulnerable veterans out of the program designed to help them. We have heard from numerous veterans in Kansas and Oklahoma who still face significant barriers to accessing health care services. Rural veterans are being forced to choose between traveling hours to a VA medical facility, paying out of pocket, or going without care altogether.

Although the VA has taken steps to fix the way the distance between a veteran’s residence and the nearest VA medical facility is calculated – now measuring by driving distance rather than as-the-crow-flies – we must still address the VA’s misguided interpretation of the 40-mile rule when it comes to whether a VA facility offers the care a veteran needs. This limitation is nonsensical and is preventing veterans from receiving the care they deserve.

To address this, we have authored legislation to fix the VA’s flawed implementation of the Choice Program. The Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2015 (S. 207 and H.R. 572) would make certain veterans like those in our largely-rural states are not excluded from accessing care promised through the Choice Program simply because of where they live.

Our legislation calls on the VA to use its authority to provide veterans access to non-VA health care when the nearest VA medical facility within 40 miles drive time from a veteran’s home does not offer the care sought by the veteran. Making clear the Senate’s overwhelming support for this fix, a Senate Budget Amendment (#356) echoing our bill’s language recently passed by a vote of 100-0.

With both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees reviewing the Choice Program this week, we are hopeful the commonsense changes offered by the Veterans Access to Community Care Act will be adopted. We must make the Choice Program work as intended if we are to live up to our commitment to care for those who sacrificed so much for our country.

Moran is Kansas’ junior senator, serving since 2011. He sits on the Appropriations; the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Indian Affairs; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees. Mullin has represented Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.