A top senator with oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs is pushing officials there to make it easier for rural veterans to be reimbursed for the cost of their travel to VA appointments.
In a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough released publicly Wednesday afternoon, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., expressed concerns about "shortcomings" with the Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System and urged the department to make it easier for rural veterans with limited internet access to claim the benefit.
"I think we can agree that even one veteran skipping one appointment, because they cannot afford the gas to get there, is not acceptable," Tester wrote in the letter.
Veterans with at least a 30% disability rating, or who meet other medical or financial criteria, can be reimbursed for the cost of their travel to appointments at VA facilities or for VA-approved care at other facilities. Caregivers are also eligible if they are traveling to support a veteran's care.
Right now, the VA pays 41.5 cents per mile traveled, as well as some other expenses such as parking, tolls and, in some cases, meals and lodging.
In 2020, the VA launched an online portal called the Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System, or BTSSS, with the intention of making it easier for veterans to claim the travel benefit. The system automated a claims process that before was fully manual, leading to a backlog in processing claims.
But Tester said he's heard from veterans and caregivers in his state who are expressing a "deep frustration and their belief that VA is keeping veterans from accessing their earned benefits."
Rural veterans and less tech-savvy veterans, in particular, are "still being left behind," he said.
"Many veterans, especially those most in need of financial assistance for transportation to and from medical appointments, do not have a computer or a smart phone," Tester wrote. "In rolling out this new program, VA also did not account for inconsistent access to internet -- especially in areas like rural Montana where it can be a luxury to have access to reliable and fast internet and public computers to submit Beneficiary Travel claims, let alone view the training videos VA directs veterans to in order to learn about BTSSS."
Tester cited data that reimbursement requests are down 23% from fiscal 2019, before the new system was in place, to fiscal 2021. By comparison, eligible in-person appointments were down only 14% during the same period, Tester said in arguing that more telehealth appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic don't account for the drop-off in reimbursement requests.
While the department has added computers and tablets to facilities so veterans can file a claim for the benefit on-site, Tester said the VA hasn't done enough to inform veterans and staff that the option exists.
To address these issues, Tester urged the VA to host nationwide, in-person training events at local facilities to teach veterans how to submit claims. He also said clinic staff need more training on how to help veterans navigate the claims process and that the portal itself needs to be more user friendly.
"If they haven't already, some veterans who have been struggling with BTSSS will give up on accessing this earned benefit," he wrote. "For many rural veterans who have to drive great distances for care or veterans stretching every grocery trip and tank of gas, this will mean skipping necessary medical care. That is an insupportable outcome of a system that was intended to increase utilization and expedite receipt of these benefits."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.