- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The VA said Tuesday that it will change the distance criteria for the Choice Card program after facing months of criticism from lawmakers and veterans.

Veterans can use the Choice Card to receive private care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment. Veterans have complained that the department measures the 40 miles “as the crow flies” in a straight line from the veteran’s home to the nearest medical facility, meaning veterans sometimes must drive much farther than 40 miles to get there.

Ahead of Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson testifying in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Tuesday morning, the department said it would change the criteria to be 40 miles driving distance.

“We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. “VA looks forward to the ongoing support of our partners as we continue to make improvements to this new program.”

The VA will send letters to veterans who are now eligible for the program under the new distance calculation, a VA spokeswoman said.

Veterans have also criticized the program because it applies to any VA facility, not necessarily one that offers the service the patient needs. That means a veteran may have to travel farther to get specific care, like mental health services.

A VA spokeswoman said it would take a new law from Congress to make the change as the department does not believe it has this flexibility under the current language.

Congress approved the Choice Card as part of a broader reform package in the wake of the wait time scandal last year when a whistleblower alleged that veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists. The law also gave the secretary more power to fire poorly performing senior executive service employees.


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