Veterans and some VA doctors say that the new “choice card” program, meant to reduce long patient wait times, is confusing and causing more stress.
The choice card issued by the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs was meant to end long wait times for veterans after last summer’s scandal revealed that those who fought for their country were dying while waiting for care.
The card gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor.
But instead, some veterans say that when they attempted to use their card, the VA told them they had to live more than 40 “miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies,” from their VA rather than Google maps miles, which makes the card harder to use. Several VA doctors e-mailed The Washington Post saying they themselves don’t understand how to use the program
Another reader wrote in saying that her stepfather, Charles Schuster, who died in 2009, recently received a card in the mail, a symbol of an agency still seemingly in disarray. “Gave me a good laugh,” she wrote.
So far, 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private care with their cards, the VA said last week. It’s a fraction of the 9 million veterans who depend on the delay-plagued VA health-care system, the largest network of health centers and hospitals in the country.
“As far as I can tell, the choice card has created more confusion and aggravation than improving access to clinical care, though it did gain political points,” said one VA primary care doctor, who says he’s on the front lines of doing intakes. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because VA employees are not allowed to speak to the media without permission. But he said he and other doctors “are confused by the choice card system and don’t understand how to implement it.”
Another problem that veterans pointed to is that all veterans, whether eligible or not, get the card. Some are showing up in private emergency rooms and try to use the card only to find out it’s not valid.
During a recent House hearing with VA Secretary Robert McDonald, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said the program needs to be totally revamped. The 40 mile “as-a-crow-flies” distance is a huge problem for his district, which has 63 rural counties and no VA hospital. Huelskamp co-sponsored a bill that would require the VA secretary to expand the Veterans Choice Act eligibility to better assist rural veterans by changing the 40-mile requirement to be based on actual driving distance instead of radius.