Veterans deserve more choices in our VA system

Published 8:28 am Wednesday, March 4, 2015

By U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

We all have special veterans in our life. These are the countless men and women across the country who sacrifice so much in defense of our nation. They serve valiantly in conflicts across the globe as part of the United States military.

When they finish their service to our nation and leave the military, these veterans deserve the highest level of respect and care possible. Unfortunately, too many veterans are being left behind in a VA system that lacks accountability and any understanding of commonsense.

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Last year, all of our eyes were opened to the harsh reality that too many of our veterans already realized. VA officials were rigging the system by hiding veterans on secret waiting lists. These alarming revelations led Congress to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. This legislation included a number of important accountability measures including provisions that make it easier to fire senior VA officials and a reduction in money that could be used to provide bonuses to VA employees.

The bill also included a provision designed to increase veteran access to private care, through what is called the VA Choice Program. The idea was that veterans who experienced wait times of more than 30 days or those that lived more than 40 miles from a VA facility could seek care from a private doctor.

I was especially pleased to learn of this provision and enthusiastically championed the bill’s passage because I knew how important greater access to care would be to our area. Sadly, I have come to learn that the VA is interpreting the legislation in a way that continues to force veterans to travel hundreds of miles to receive care at VA facilities.

Let me explain the problem with the VA’s interpretation of our law. Current law says that any veteran who resides more than 40 miles from a VA facility is eligible to receive care from a private medical provider. That should be good news for veterans in southwest Alabama.

Unfortunately, the VA has interpreted that the 40 mile rule does not refer to whether the specialty need of the veteran (for example, orthopedic surgery) is available within 40 miles. So regardless of whether the VA facility near a veteran provides the actual service or care the veteran needs, the veteran is not eligible for private care.

This interpretation has resulted in a significant number of veterans who need access to important medical treatment being forced back into the VA system even though they could receive the same care from hospitals and doctors in their community.

When I learned of this, I immediately went to work on legislation to make things right. Last week, I introduced H.R. 1096, the Real Choice for Veterans Act. My short, two-page bill would make clear that veterans may seek private care when they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility “that is able to provide to the veteran the care and services that the veteran needs.”

Southwest Alabama is a great example of how my legislation would work. While we have VA clinics in Mobile and Monroeville, the nearest VA hospital is more than 40 miles away. That said, our district is home to a number of first-class, private hospitals, which could provide adequate care to our veterans. Instead of forcing the veteran to travel miles out of the way to seek care at a VA hospital, my bill would allow the veteran to get that care from a local hospital or physician.

So whether you are a veteran in Atmore or Chatom or Loxley, my bill would likely allow you to seek some care from a local physician instead of traveling miles out of the way to VA hospitals in Montgomery, Pensacola, or Biloxi.