January 29, 2018

Weekly Column: Veterans' Access To Local Care Update

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Last May, I introduced S. 1279, the Veterans Health Administration Reform Act of 2017, to improve access to local care for veterans to better meet their individual needs.  This legislation is the result of essential input of Idaho veterans about what is needed to ensure timely access to high quality services for all veterans no matter where they live.  Part of this legislation and other improvements are now included in comprehensive veterans legislation advancing in the U.S. Senate.    

Delays for appointments and treatment through Veterans Health Administration facilities led to the creation of the Veterans Choice Program.  The VCP was intended to enable the expansion of treatment options with private sector doctors, but veterans still face significant bureaucratic hurdles to using this program.  Currently, the VCP is one of many programs through which veterans can receive “non-VA care.”  Multiple programs with different eligibility rules and reimbursement rates cause confusion.

The legislation I introduced, and co-sponsored by fellow Idaho Senator Jim Risch, would combine these programs into one program focused on providing non-VA care when it is in the best interest of the veteran.  The single, streamlined program would enable the VA to better partner with providers in the community when it is in the best interest of veterans.  The legislation would also remove disincentives that discourage local providers from working with the VA, including ensuring the VA will pay providers in a timely fashion for services provided under the new program and enhancing direct communication between the VA and local providers.  Some providers in Idaho have experienced significant delays in repayment for services through the current system, especially the VCP.  S. 1279 would also ensure that the VA educates veterans and staff about health care options available through the VA and how these options interact with veterans’ other health insurance coverage. 

In late November 2017, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) released legislation that would help fix the VCP.  I commend the committee for advancing this legislation, S. 2193, the Caring for our Veterans Act of 2017, through committee consideration.   This is a positive step to assist Idaho veterans, as S. 2193 reflects ideas on veterans’ eligibility and access, and educational and training requirements contained in the legislation I introduced, which came from the direct input of Idahoans and was crafted with the best interest of veterans in mind. 

The committee reports that S. 2193 would provide a streamlined “Veterans Community Care Program” to provide veterans with access to health care and services in their own communities, based on the decisions of veterans and their doctors; create requirements meant to ensure that all VA and community care programs operate efficiently and effectively; and establish standards for timely payment to community care providers.  The VA would also be required to develop an educational program to teach veterans about their health care options available through the VA.  This includes informing about eligibility criteria; copayments and other financial obligations; and how other health insurance and VA health care interact.  The legislation also requires the development of a training program for VA employees to teach them how to administer non-VA health care programs, including information on reimbursement.  A summary is available on the committee’s website, www.veterans.senate.gov.    

Thank you to Idaho veterans, their families and friends, and those who serve veterans for your thoughtful engagement on needed improvements.  I encourage you to continue to share your views as I continue working with you and my colleagues in Congress to push this legislation over the finish line to better ensure veterans have timely access to quality services they so greatly deserve.      

# # #

Word Count:  598