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Lawmaker Wants VA to Further Expand Choice Card Eligibility

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The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee says he wants veterans to get needed health care from non-Veterans Affairs Department facilities even in some cases when they live within 40 miles of a VA clinic or hospital, which is currently barred under the Veterans Choice Act rules.

Sen. Johnny Isakson told senior VA officials on Tuesday the panel would work with the department to change the rules spelled out in the Veterans Choice Act passed last year.

The Choice Act made non-VA health care available to veterans if a VA facility was at least 40 miles away from their home. But it drew no distinction between a VA facility that could meet the veteran's needs and those that could not.

The result is that a veteran living within 40 miles of a VA clinic unable to provide treatment is still obligated to get necessary treatment from a VA facility that could be much further away -- rather than a nearby non-VA hospital.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told the committee that making such is not something the VA can do on its own.

"Absent a statutory change, we do not believe that we have the flexibility to adopt an alternative approach," he said.

Isakson said "let's fix it."

"The faster we act on that the better off we will be," Isakson told Gibson. "If there is a legislative impediment, let's fix it, because our intent is to see to it that veterans get the service."

Earlier in the day, VA Secretary Bob McDonald fixed one problem related to the 40-mile rule by tweaking the interpretation of the distance to mean "driving distance," and not straight line "as the crow flies."

In rural and remote parts of the country, a veteran may have to drive more than 40 miles to reach a VA facility that may be less than that distance when viewed measured in a straight line on a map.

Isakson and veterans organization representatives who testified at the hearing commended McDonald's action there, and hoped the same administrative fix could be made for cases in which veterans were within 40 miles of VA facility that could not meet their needs.

Concerned Veterans for America Chief Executive Officer Peter Hegseth recalled in testimony a 100 percent disabled veteran in California who is unable to use nearby medical services under the Choice Act because he lives within 10 miles of a VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic, or CBOC.

"However, that clinic is unable to provide some of the more substantial health care services he requires -- ranging from the eye-doctor to podiatry. For these services, he still travels well beyond 40 miles -- often over 100 miles one way," Hegseth said in his statement.

Sloan said the department last September asked to remove language from the Choice Act that created "geographical challenges" and so give the VA greater flexibility in providing care for veterans facing unusual or excessive burdens in reaching VA medical facilities.

But while VA was able to fix the "as the crow flies" by reinterpreting it to mean actual driving distance, Gibson said the other problem will need Congress to act since it bars veterans from using the Choice Act's non-VA option if they live within 40 miles of a VA facility, including a CBOC, he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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Bryant Jordan Department of Veteran Affairs

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