Brown Urges Secretary McDonald to Fully Fund Veterans Choice Program and Fully Implement Veterans’ Eligibility Criteria

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the first Ohioan to serve a full term on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Committee, joined a bipartisan group of 42 senators in calling on U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary McDonald to strengthen the Veterans Choice Program (VCP) – a program provided under the Veterans Choice, Access, and Accountability Act of 2014, which allows veterans to access non-VA care using a Choice Card.

“The Veterans Choice Program was intended to reduce the burden on our veterans and make healthcare easier to access,” Brown said. “The VA must take action to ensure that the program is fully funded and provides flexibility in healthcare options for the veterans who need it most.”

Brown and his colleagues urged the VA to abandon plans to reduce funding for the program by reallocating VCP funds to other VA initiatives. The letter also highlighted the critical need to expand eligibility for the program. Currently, veterans can only receive non-VA care if there are significant appointment scheduling delays or if the veterans must travel more than 40 miles from their residence.

According to Brown, veterans in areas with geographical barriers, even travel distances of less than 40 miles could be difficult to reach. Also, veterans who live within 40 miles of a Community-Based Outpatient Clinic but who require specialty care may not use their Choice Card to access that care, forcing them to spend up to several hours traveling to a VA medical center.

Full text of the senators’ letter is below:

February 24, 2015

The Honorable Robert McDonald

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue

Washington, D.C.  20420

Dear Secretary McDonald:

Since November 1, 2014, the Choice Card, as provided under the recently enacted Veterans Choice, Access, and Accountability Act of 2014, has been distributed to approximately 8.5 million Veterans nationwide, yet less than one percent of recipients – 0.37 percent – have been authorized to access non-VA care through this program.   With this in mind, we write to convey serious concerns regarding your implementation of the Choice Card Program with respect to funding for the program in connection with the Fiscal Year 2016 Presidential Budget Request and your interpretation of the 40-mile rule as provided under the Act.  We ask you to address both of these concerns immediately.   

First, we were dismayed to learn from the President’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Request that the Department of Veterans Affairs intends to submit a legislative proposal that would reallocate part of the funding for the Veterans Choice Program to other programs within the VA.  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.  Instead, the Department should make certain that funding provided by Congress is being used to implement the Veterans Choice Program to the fullest extent possible.

Second, 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.  As you know, the Choice Program provides Veterans with the option to receive non-VA health care rather than waiting for a VA appointment if there is a significant delay in scheduling an appointment or a Veteran has to travel more than 40 miles to receive VA care.  While many Veterans are satisfied with care provided through the VA Health Care System, trips to VA medical centers can be difficult for rural Veterans, especially those who are elderly or ill.  Because long drive times are a hardship for these individuals and can present a significant barrier to accessing care, many Veterans anticipated using their Choice Cards when Congress established the Choice Program last year. 

The VA’s definition of the eligibility criteria is too narrow in two important respects. First, the VA does not consider the type of care available within 40 miles of where a Veteran lives.  In many areas across the nation, the effect is that those who need services only available at a VA medical center, but who live near a Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, are prevented from using the Choice Card to access specialty care in their local community.  While the Clinic may be within 40 miles, the VA hospital offering the required care is often more than 40 miles and hours of travel time away.

Second, the VA measures the 40 miles “as the crow flies” and not the actual distance that the Veteran would have to travel.  Congress’ intent was to establish a pilot program that would allow Veterans to access non-VA care when they face an obstacle to care, whether it be an unacceptable distance to care or wait time for care.  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 impact of such an interpretation is to exclude from the program many of the Veterans for whom Congress aimed to make health care more accessible.  For Veterans in remote and rural areas with limited transportation access, this could mean the difference between 30 minutes and half a day of travel. 

As Secretary, you already have the authority to modify the way that the distance criteria is calculated so that the Choice Program is implemented as Congress intended, and we urge you to rectify the overly narrow definition without delay.  Additionally, we urge you to stop any attempt to propose a reallocation of funds designed to kill the Choice Card program in its infancy.

Sincerely,

2-6-15

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