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Congress changes Veterans Choice Program - again

By Dennis Birchall

By Dennis Birchall
BC Veterans
Service Officer

Last year, in the wake of the Veterans Administration (VA) appointment scandal that led to the resignation of the VA Secretary and many of the top health deputies, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 that commissioned the Veterans Choice Program.
Congress gave the VA a short three-month timeline to start up the program and make it operational. The Choice program was to provide veterans critical non-VA care options if a veteran could not be seen by the VA in a timely manner or who lived more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility. The program was only open to veterans enrolled in VA health care as of August 1, 2014.
There were several problems with the new Choice Program. The 40-mile rule was measured "as the crow flies" and not by road distance traveled. If the VA medical facility within the 40-mile limit was unable to provide the required medical service, the veteran could not use the Choice Program and was required to travel long distances to another VA medical facility.
In some geographic regions, such as in rural areas, there were limited numbers of non-VA providers signed up to provide care. Veterans who signed up for VA health care after August 1, 2014, were not eligible for the program. Choice had priority over existing non-VA care programs and did not cover all medical services.
Finally, Choice was a separate funding line item so the VA had to go back to Congress for approval to move money between different non-VA health care programs. Complicated, with gaps, may appropriately describe the program.
On May 22, 2015, Public Law 114-19 - the Construction Authorization and Choice Improvement Act - changed the 40-mile rule to reflect driving distance. However, it did not address any of the other above issues with the Choice Program.
Finally, on July 31, 2015, Congress passed, and the president signed into law Public Law 114-41 - Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015.
This law directed the Secretary of the VA to develop a plan to establish a new, single program named the "Veterans Choice Program" to furnish hospital care and medical services to all Veterans enrolled in VA health care - no matter what date they enrolled.
It makes almost $3.4 billion dollars available to the VA to pay for non-VA health care provided to Veterans between May 1 and October 30, 2015. Additionally, it expands the number of non-VA providers permitted to participate in the Choice Program and eliminates the 60-day limit on follow-up care. The law also provides some clarity on the 40-mile rule in respect to the availability of services at the nearest VA medical facility.
The VA is implementing the new law in steps. To read Public Law 114-41 in its entirety, go to https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/3236/text/pl . For the latest information on Choice eligibility, call 866-606-8198 or visit http://www.va.gov/opa/choiceact/. The webpage has a link you can click to see which doctors are participating in your area.
For more information, call Dennis Birchall at 860-460-1643 or email at dbirchall@banderacounty.org.