Senators urge VA chief to fix ‘choice card’ woes

A bipartisan coalition of 41 senators is pressing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to remedy the implementation of a program that allows veterans to seek private medical care.

The effort, often called the "choice card," allows veterans to seek medical care at non-VA providers, if they live more than 40 miles from an agency facility or if they cannot get a doctor’s appointment within 30 days.

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The program was a cornerstone of legislation Congress approved last summer to overhaul the VA — with lawmakers allocating $10 billion for the effort — after a months-long scandal over patient wait times that were linked to a series of deaths. 

The VA is “construing the eligibility criteria as it relates to the 40-mile rule so narrowly that it is excluding too many who are far away from the care that they need,” the group — lead by Senate Armed Services Committee John McCainJohn Sidney McCainClimate change is a GOP issue, too It's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Meghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' MORE (R-Ariz.) — wrote Wednesday in a letter to McDonald. 

They charged that while the department has sent out 8.5 million cards, only 0.37 percent of veterans who received them have been authorized to seek private healthcare.

Senators said the VA “does not consider the type of care available within 40 miles of where a Veteran lives” and measures the distance “’as the crow flies’ and not the actual distance that the veteran would have to travel.” 

“Given the clear intent of Congress to reduce barriers to care, it is perplexing that the VA is not using its authority to allow non-VA care for those who face a geographic challenge in accessing care, including long drive times or health conditions that make travel difficult,” the group wrote.

The group reminded McDonald he has the authority to modify how the program’s distance criteria is calculated and urged him to do so “without delay.”

Senators also said they were “dismayed” over a provision in the administration’s fiscal 2016 VA budget request that would allow McDonald to funnel money away from the program.

“It is deeply disturbing that the administration would try to reduce funding for this program before this program has even been allowed to work — being in existence for only a few short months — and as barriers to care continue to exist.”

They asked him to “stop any attempt to propose a reallocation of funds designed to kill the choice card program in its infancy.”

The missive is the latest in a rough week for McDonald. On Tuesday he had to apologize for misstating that he had served in special forces, a false claim that has put him on thin ice with Capitol Hill and veterans groups.