Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo
In March, I wrote about working with Idaho veterans to press for needed changes to the Veterans Choice Program to ensure that Idaho veterans can access the services they so greatly deserve. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently made needed changes to its policy regarding private health care access for veterans that means more veterans can get health care closer to home without traveling distances to VA care facilities.
The Veterans Choice Program offers the alternative of care in a private medical facility if veterans live 40 miles or more from the closest VA medical center, clinic or facility. However, the VA's original implementation of this program left many veterans unable to access the program's benefits due to the VA measuring 40-miles "as the crow flies" rather than by driving distance. This was discriminatory for many veterans, including many in Idaho. Given our mountainous terrain, distances traveled by care can be far greater than simple air miles.
I have been disappointed with the VA's efforts to make the Choice Program difficult to use when improved access to high-quality veterans services is greatly needed. That is why I joined legislative and written efforts to get the VA to change course. I co-sponsored S. 207, the Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2015 that would require the VA to consider distance by driving miles and begin measuring the 40-mile distance from the nearest facility that provides the service needed by the veteran rather than the closest VA facility in general.
Additionally, I joined Senate colleagues in pushing back against the President's request for Congress to allow the VA to move the funds for the Veterans Choice Program into other VA accounts. We urged VA Secretary Robert McDonald to act quickly to address the problems with the Veterans Choice Program and implement the program as Congress intended. I will continue to push the VA to allow veterans seeking specialty care to utilize the program.
Secretary McDonald's recent announcement that highway miles will be the new standard for measuring distances and availability for treatment in private health facilities is a step in the right direction. In making the announcement, Secretary McDonald stated, "This update to the program will allow more Veterans to access care when and where they want it. We look forward to continued dialogue with Veterans and our partners to help us ensure continued improvements for Veterans to access care."
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was intended to provide veterans relief, not extra bureaucratic hurdles. I will continue to rely heavily on the valuable input of Idaho veterans as I continue to work to make sure that Idaho veterans can properly access the services they need. Thank you to all the Idaho veterans who have provided the insight necessary to improve veterans programs.
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