- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans groups are optimistic that the first Choice Cards entitling vets to care from private doctors are going out smoothly, marking a small victory for the embattled VA.

The Department of Veterans Affairs last week began mailing about 300,000 cards to veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. Veterans service organizations had braced for a flood of calls from confused veterans, but said so far they’ve not heard any complaints.

“We’re only a few days into implementation, so I don’t want to make any assumptions about how it’s going, but I think it’s encouraging that we haven’t heard an outcry of concern,” said Ryan Gallucci, deputy director of national veterans services at the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “But to that extent, not that many cards went out.”

The Choice Cards, formed under a VA reform law passed over the summer, allow veterans who live too far from a clinic or have waited too long for an appointment to seek care outside the VA system.

Veterans who have waited more than 30 days for care should receive their cards in the next couple of weeks. All other vets will receive their cards in December or January.

Some opponents initially resisted the choice program, saying it would be difficult to implement and could harm the VA in the future by sending too many vets to outside providers, said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The smooth phase one rollout, however, proves that much of the infrastructure to outsource care is already in place, he said.

“I think there was a lot of hype around how difficult and complicated this was going to be, and we’re seeing now proof that this wasn’t that difficult or complicated,” he said. “I think it’s going to roll out a lot smoother than some early detractors thought it would.”

Giving veterans access to private doctors was a key part of the law Congress passed this summer to try to solve problems at the troubled VA, which saw accusations of poor care and veterans who died while stuck on VA clinics’ secret wait lists.

Veterans groups said they’ll continue monitoring the card program to make sure it helps speed up care.

The VA included a letter sent with each card, explaining what veterans needed to do to use their cards. The VA also set up a help line, and veterans service organizations prepared their own members to field questions too.

The VFW put together a website with resources to determine eligibility and facts about the new program, and passed out fliers containing the link on the National Mall on Tuesday, which was Veterans Day. The American Legion also briefed their 2,900 service officers to be able to answer vets’ questions.

“Some of them will want to just go in and sit in front of people with that letter, and the service officer will be able to say this is what this means and this is what you’re supposed to do with this card. So we’re ready,” said Verna Jones, executive director of the American Legion.

The No. 1 question they expected to get: Which vets are eligible to use the Choice Cards. Mr. Gallucci said he also wants to make sure veterans know they can’t just bring the cards to a private doctor. All care, he said, must be facilitated through the VA, like getting a referral with a private health insurance plan.

Mr. Gallucci said that based on the number of calls the VFW has received throughout the duration of the VA wait list scandal that broke earlier this year, he was surprised that the organization hasn’t gotten more calls about the cards from veterans.

“I guess we were expecting a bit of a bigger splash,” he said.

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