The Senate has approved legislation that would amend a rule that bars veterans from seeking private health care if they live within 40 miles of a VA facility, even it the clinic in question doesn't provide the services they need.
The Senate voted the day before Memorial Day weekend to change the VA Choice Program to provide veterans who live within 40 miles of a facility access to medical care if their nearest VA facility has limited services.
Now the bill must be approved by the House before the VA can act on it.
The legislation has been in the works since March, when lawmakers discovered that some vets, especially those in rural areas, needed to travel long distances for medical care because their local VA clinics didn't provide services such as laboratory tests, radiology, chemotherapy, surgery and more.
The 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act created the VA Choice program to let veterans see a private physician if they couldn't get an appointment at VA within 30 days or if they lived more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
But many veterans learned they still needed to travel to major VA facilities for much of their care because they lived near VA clinics that only offer basic care for acute or noncomplex chronic conditions.
VA first amended the 40-mile rule in April, changing the measure from a straight-line distance to driving distance — a move that allowed veterans with geographic barriers between their homes and a VA facility to use VA Choice.
If the Senate's latest bill is made law, it would allow more veterans to get the medical care they need, said bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
"The legislation passed unanimously by the Senate … aims to help thousands of veterans who are currently being forced to choose between traveling hours to a VA medical facility, paying out of pocket, or going without care altogether," Moran said.
VA distributed nearly 8 million VA Choice Cards when the program was initiated in November. By March, it had approved about 46,000 requests for care and made 44,461 appointments.
The VA Choice program runs through August 2017 or until the money set aside for it — $10 billion — runs out.
Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health clinical operations at the Veterans Health Administration, thanked the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday for helping pass the legislation, which he described as allowing VA to consider eligibility for VA choice "beyond simply geography to include environmental factors and the veteran's medical conditions."
"This will allow VA to be more responsive to the special challenges faced by individual veterans," Lynch said.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.