Sen. John McCain introduced a bill Wednesday that would extend the VA Choice Card program indefinitely and expand eligibility to include every veteran enrolled in VA health care.
Saying the Veterans Affairs Department has been "slow to implement the program" since enactment a year ago of the law broadening private care options for veterans, the Arizona Republican believes his bill would remove any lingering uncertainty about the program, which will end in 2017.
"More than a year after the VA scandal first came to light and a year since VA reform legislation was signed into law, wait times are still too long and veterans are still not getting the care they have earned and deserve," McCain said in a news release.
The bill would erase the requirement that a veteran must live at least 40 miles from a VA health facility or be unable to get an appointment at a VA hospital or clinic within 30 days to be eligible for the program.
The VA Choice program was established in response to the scandals that erupted in 2014 over health care delays and appointment wait times at Veterans Affairs health facilities nationwide.
It allows veterans to see a private physician if they can't get an appointment at VA within 30 days or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald has spoken out against privatizing or outsourcing VA medical care, saying providing treatment for veterans is a "sacred mission" for the department.
During a media event in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, McDonald said he has concerns that civilian doctors often don't understand veterans' unique needs and has met with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to discuss educating doctors on military culture and health care.
"I've got to make sure those people are informed," he said. "The idea of privatizing the VA is antithetical to that."
From January through June, VA authorized 115,645 appointments under VA Choice and made 84,385 appointments during the same period.
But the program's benefits still elude some veterans.
A retired Air Force master sergeant who lives in Rigby, Idaho, is planning to travel to the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System on Monday for medical treatment. Since he lives 18 miles from a community based outpatient clinic in Idaho Falls that provides basic medical care and wellness checkups but no advanced care, he isn't eligible for the VA Choice program.
Salt Lake City is more than 225 miles from his house.
"I've never heard of VA Choice. Don't know anything about it. I wish I didn't have to drive to Salt Lake City. It's a long way," said the retired airman, who asked that his name not be used to protect his privacy.
The Senate in June approved legislation that would amend the rule preventing veterans like the master sergeant from using the VA Choice program if they live within 40 miles of a VA facility, even it the clinic doesn't provide the services they need.
The House has not yet taken up a similar measure.
McCain said his new bill would improve care for all veterans.
"VA has failed to adequately distribute and educate qualified veterans about the Choice Card, restricted some veterans' eligibility to receive it, and tried to move critical funds away from the program altogether," he said. "I urge my colleagues to support the Permanent VA Choice Card Act and make sure that no veteran is ever again denied the care they so desperately need."