Lawmakers seek to expand options for veterans’ health care

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Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) introduced new legislation March 4 that they argue will expand health care access for veterans and reduce the backlog for veterans seeking disability benefits.

Traditionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs only reimburses veterans for health care received at VA facilities. The bill, titled the Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act of 2015, would end this requirement and allow private doctors to provide such examinations.

“We know that our veterans’ battles don’t always end when they return home,” Sen. Franken said in a news release. “Too many return with mental and physical disabilities incurred while protecting our freedoms.  All they expect in return for their service is for our nation to keep its promises and get them the VA benefits they’ve earned.

“Our legislation would help the VA speed up the claims process that is making far too many veterans wait far too long to get help they need.”

The legislation would also require the VA to release a report within 180 days of the bill’s passage, to update Congress on its progress in implementing the goals of the measure, as well as annual reports thereafter.

The legislation represents the most direct attempt yet to expand on recent VA reforms in light of reports of extensive wait lists at VA facilities, which drew national headlines in spring 2014.

In response, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, signed into law by President Obama in August 2014.

The law created, among other provisions, the Choice Card program. This option allows veterans to be reimbursed for health care from private doctors under two conditions: if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or if they have waited longer than 30 days for an appointment.

The program, however, has been heavily criticized out of the gate. A recent survey from Veterans of Foreign Wars found that 80 percent of veterans living within the 40 mile radius have been denied, according to Military Times.

The low figure is due to the VA’s narrow interpretation of the 40-mile rule. As reported by disabledveterans.org, the distance is calculated using the “as the crow flies” method, meaning that a person who must drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility may still not be far enough way to qualify for the program.

In addition, the law does not specify what type of care must be available within 40 miles away, meaning that a veteran may be denied coverage for certain services which still may not be available in distances far greater than then 40 miles radius.

Led by Sen. Jonny Isakson (R-GA), head of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, 41 senators have signed a petition calling on the VA to relax its interpretation of the 40-mile rule.