The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed legislation instructing the Veterans Affairs Department to allow veterans living within 40 miles of a VA facility to get non-VA care if the department hospital or clinic cannot provide the service.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, filed the bill as an amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution, Moran spokeswoman Garrette Tuner said. The vote was 100-0.
"We [expected] it to pass with broad support from both sides of the aisle," she said.
Moran and other lawmakers backed the legislation even though many maintain the VA already has the authority to allow veterans within 40 miles of a VA clinic to use non-VA care when needed.
The VA has claimed otherwise, however, arguing that Congress' intent – as spelled out last year in the conference report on the Veterans Choice Act – allows exemptions to veterans only when there are geographic problems accessing a VA facility.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson cited that restriction on Wednesday after Moran pressed him on language in the same report stating that lawmakers "do not intend the 40-mile eligibility criteria ... to preclude veterans who reside closer than 40 miles from a VA facility from accessing care through non-VA providers, particularly if the VA facility the veteran resides near provides limited services."
Turner said that Moran's amendment will ensure VA administers the Choice Act "as Congress intended." It calls on the VA to provide veterans access to non-VA health care when the nearest VA medical facility within 40 miles drive time is incapable of offering the care the veteran seeks, she said.
Lawmakers have been fighting with VA leadership over this issue at least since last September, when then SVAC chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, along with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and then committee ranking member Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, challenged VA on its narrow interpretation of the restriction.
VA has always had the authority to permit care at non-VA facilities, they wrote on Sept. 25, 2014, and nothing in the Veterans Choice Act negates that.
Lawmakers "did not intend for a veteran to travel hundreds of miles or be required to experience an unreasonable number of driving hours to receive a service or treatment immediately available within the community," they wrote.
On Wednesday, in advance of the Senate hearing , the VA did reinterpret one part of the 40-mile restriction, changing it to mean "driving time" instead of straight line, "as the crow flies" distance.
Gibson told lawmakers that the VA had the flexibility to make that change, but not to with regard to allowing non-VA care within the 40-mile range only because a local VA facility could not provide the care or service.
Lawmakers deliberately inserted language into the law granting the VA just that kind of flexibility, and Miller began pushing the department to exercise its authority for veterans within the 40-mile limit since last year.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org