New vets health-care program expanded

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OGDEN — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hopes a small change will make a big difference in how many veterans have access to a new health-care program.

The VA announced last week that it plans to expand eligibility for the Veterans Choice Program by changing the way it calculates the distance between a veteran’s residence and the nearest VA medical facility, measuring in driving distance rather than a straight line.

The program, which began in August after President Barack Obama signed it into law, is a temporary benefit that allows eligible veterans to receive health care in their communities rather than waiting for a VA appointment or traveling to a VA facility.

For a veteran to be eligible, they must fit one of three requirements: their home VA facility doesn’t have available specialists; they must have an appointment wait at a normal VA facility of 30 days or more; or they live at least 40 miles from a VA facility.

Under the change, a veteran who lives fewer than 40 miles in a straight line from the nearest VA medical facility, but who has to physically drive more than 40 miles to get there, will now be eligible for the program. Under the previous straight-line distance policy, veterans would not be eligible unless they were waiting for an appointment longer than 30-days from their preferred date or the date determined to be medically necessary by their physician.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald said that, by changing the way the 40-mile distance is calculated, the number of veterans eligible for the program is expected to roughly double.

“We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” McDonald said in a press release from the VA.

“Essentially, what they’ve done is shortened the minimum distance you have to be from a VA facility to be eligible,” said Terry Schow, former Utah VA executive director. “Hopefully, that will encourage people to use it.” 

The policy change will be made through regulatory action in the coming weeks. Schow says that, according to word from his vast veterans pipeline, the program is not being taken advantage of.

“I think it’s been a little confusing for some vets, as far as who’s eligible,” he said. “All reports that I’ve been receiving say it’s just not being used enough. Hopefully, this change will serve as a catalyst for people to use it.”

The VA says the method of determining driving distance will be calculated by using a commercial GPS product.

For more information about the program, visit www.va.gov/opa/choiceact/.