The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday changed its interpretation of a law after months of criticism from Congress and veterans groups, making it easier for veterans to get health care outside of the VA system.
Under a federal law passed in 2014 known as the Veterans Choice Act, veterans forced to wait longer than 30 days for an appointment, or who have to travel more than 40 miles to a VA facility, are eligible to get appointments outside of the VA system.
As soon as the program was implemented, it drew criticism from lawmakers and veterans advocacy groups who said the VA’s interpretation of the law was different than that which lawmakers intended. Specifically, the VA said they would measure the 40-mile distance to a VA facility as a straight line on a map rather than actual driving distance.
Many of the veterans affected by the rule live in rural areas and might not have straight-roads or highways that lead to the nearest VA facility. The new rule allows veterans to plug directions into a commercial product such as Google Maps to calculate actual driving distance.
“This is a common-sense adjustment to a rule that has the potential to significantly impact the success of the Veterans Choice Program,” Senators Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said in a joint statement.
Yet the new rule doesn’t go far enough for some advocates. Under the rule, veterans are eligible for outside care if they live 40 miles from any VA facility. The VA doesn’t take into account the capabilities of that facility. For example, if a veteran requires specialized care available only at major facilities, but lives within 40 miles of a basic clinic, that veteran isn’t eligible for outside appointments and still may have to drive hours to get necessary care.
“The VFW is glad the VA agreed to change the ‘crow flies’ measurement to actual driving distances, but the VA must now eliminate the 40-mile bubble they placed around their medical facilities,” the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an advocacy group, said in a statement. “If a local VA cannot meet someone’s medical requirements, then it is absurd for VA to require them to drive hundreds of miles to another VA that can.”
The VA has said the law mandates this so-called 40-mile bubble and it can’t make a simple interpretive tweak. The VA maintains that the law itself needs to be changed before it can further expand eligibility.
But changing the driving-distance calculation remains within the scope of the law, and lines up with lawmakers’ intent, VA officials say.
“We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more Veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. “We appreciate the constructive feedback shared by Veterans and our partners to help us improve service to Veterans.”
President Barack Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act into law in August providing some $15 billion in emergency funding, a large portion intended to allow veterans facing long wait times or lengthy travel distances to get appointments outside the VA system.
The bill came after months of revelations of wrongdoing at the VA, including employees across the country falsifying logs of patient appointment wait times. The upheaval led to the firing or resignation of a number of top officials, including the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The Veterans Choice program has also faced broader questions about its implementation. The VFW released a report in early March showing that while 8.6 million Veterans Choice Cards—which allow access to the program—had been issued, some 80% of survey participants who said they should have been eligible for outside care said they hadn’t been given the option. Other veterans advocacy groups have said veterans don’t readily understand their eligibility for the program or how to use the new benefits.