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Steps To Improve Veterans' Access To Local Care

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Many veterans in Idaho share a need to be able to use local health care providers more easily, especially for specialty care.  In this column, I outline efforts to improve veterans' access to local health care providers through the Veterans Choice Program (VCP) and similar programs.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has several programs that allow veterans to receive care in the community, or "non-VA care."  The VCP is one of these programs that is intended to allow veterans to receive care in the community as an alternative to long travel distances and wait times.  Instead of working as intended, the program frequently causes additional hassle for veterans, VA employees and providers. 

Idahoans shared with me their VCP challenges through my town meetings and my 2015 Veterans Survey.  Many people wanted to know why the VA could not go back to utilizing its other non-VA care programs outside of the VCP.  In fact, 42 percent of the respondents to my 2015 survey said that their experiences with the VCP were "dissatisfying" or worse.  I have taken their feedback very seriously and have worked to come up with a solution that makes it easier for veterans to use the VCP in the way it was intended. 

In March, I joined several senators in introducing S. 2646, the Veterans Choice Improvement Act of 2016.  This bill seeks to fix many of the problems plaguing the VCP and the other non-VA care programs.  Currently, the VCP and non-VA programs compete against each other.  They have different reimbursement rates and different levels of red tape.  S. 2646 consolidates the non-VA care programs into one program with one reimbursement rate and one set of governing rules.  This consolidation makes the program more transparent and accountable because it will be easier to see how the VA is managing its non-VA care resources.  This change will also make it easier for veterans, providers and the VA to get veterans into the community for care. 

S. 2646 would also make it easier for non-VA care providers to enter into agreements with the VA to provide medical care and services by changing the legal mechanisms the VA has at its disposal.  The VA will be able to enter into provider agreements, called Veterans Care Agreements, which will allow the VA to respond to local needs for specialty care.  Additionally, the bill sets strict reimbursement timing standards to address hesitation by non-VA medical providers to work with the VA due to the VA's past failures to reimburse in a timely manner.  Overall, S. 2646 would make it easier for those who have honorably served our nation to receive the medical benefits they require.  Should this legislation become law, I will continue to count on the input of Idaho's veterans to let me know if the changes brought about by this measure are having a meaningful impact or if there are new problems that must be addressed. 

I will continue working on all fronts, including legislatively and directly with veterans and the VA, to fix the problems veterans encounter in obtaining quality medical services as we change the VA into the system our veterans deserve.

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