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Congressional action gives vets more access to health care

By Dennis Birchall County Veterans Service Officer

May 22, 2015 was a good day for rural Veterans. That was the day the US Congress changed a rule that barred veterans from seeking private health care at VA expense if they lived within 40 miles of a VA facility - even if that facility did not provide the services the veteran required.
Public Law 114-22 was passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the President just prior to the Memorial Day weekend. In the works for several months, the change ensures that veterans living within 40 miles of a VA facility can access private medical care if their nearest VA medical facility has limited services, such as the Kerrville VA Medical Facility (KVA).
For example, KVA does not have the capability to provide all types of medical care and regularly refers veterans to Audie Murphy in San Antonio for those medical specialties not resident at KVA.
Congressional lawmakers enacted the Veteran's Choice Program in November 2014 to help the VA overcome a nationwide crisis in care and confidence. It allowed veterans who couldn't get an appointment within 30 days or lived more than 40 miles from a VA facility to seek private medical care. The 40 miles was measured "as-the-crow-flies" and not by road distance. Those veterans living within 40 miles of a VA facility were restricted from seeking private medical care even if the nearest VA facility didn't provide the care they needed. At Congressional urging, VA changed the 40-mile rule in April, to reflect road distance rather than as-the-crow-flies.
Congress was still concerned that veterans, especially rural veterans, needed to travel long distances to get care for acute and chronic conditions because they lived near a facility that only provided basic care and didn't provide services like laboratory tests, radiology, chemotherapy, neurology, surgery and more.
As an example, Del Rio veterans in Val Verde County had to drive 153.5 miles one-way to Audie Murphy in San Antonio for a medical appointment when the small VA clinic in Del Rio was closed.
As of March 2015, the VA had only approved 46,000 requests for non-VA care and made 44,461 appointments out of nearly eight million eligible veterans with Choice cards.
In the South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS) only 330 veterans had successfully used their Choice Cards for medical appointments as of April 2015.
The VA Choice Program is intended to be temporary, running until August 7, 2017, or until the $10 billion Congress set aside for the program is expended. Now that Congress has modified the law governing the Veterans Choice Program, the VA can consider eligibility for VA Choice beyond simply geography and include other factors like availability of services and veteran's medical conditions.
If you have questions regarding your benefits or eligibility and application procedures for VA Healthcare, contact Bandera County's Veterans Service Officer Dennis Birchall at (830) 460-1643.