Rep. Newhouse Questions Cuts to Veterans Choice Program, Co-Sponsors Bill to Improve VA Access
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) released the following statement after cosponsoring H.R. 572, The Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2015, and joining 28 colleagues in a letter to request answers from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald on why the Obama Administration proposed funding cuts to the Veterans Choice program in the president’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal:
“Too often, our veterans struggle to access timely, quality healthcare that meets their needs. For veterans who live in rural areas of Central Washington, where healthcare options are limited, the Veterans Choice Program has improved access to healthcare. Instead of removing options for veterans’ care by cutting the program, the VA should commit to solutions that restore trust and reduce veterans’ wait times, including a more realistic interpretation of the 40-mile rule. Our nation has an obligation to keep promises to our veterans – it is our duty to ensure common sense prevails to provide them with quality healthcare.”
The Veterans Choice program was designed to assist eligible veterans find care outside the VA network if they experience a wait time over 30 days or do not live within 40 miles of a VA clinic. H.R. 572, The Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2015 was introduced by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) and U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) to improve the Veterans Choice Program by ensuring that the government measures defines the 40 miles as driving distance instead of ‘as the crow flies.’ The bill also requires the VA Secretary to furnish health care at non-VA facilities to veterans who live more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA medical facility if that facility cannot provide the care the veteran requires.
The full text of the letter to VA Secretary McDonald is below:
The Honorable Robert McDonald
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20420
Dear Secretary McDonald,
It has been over half a year since the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act was signed into law, yet veterans are still struggling to gain adequate healthcare. More importantly, for those of us who represent rural districts, the Veterans Choice program represented a new opportunity to address the wait time backlog for veterans. While this program aims to help veterans living in areas with limited VA access, details surrounding its implementation, and the president’s recent budget, have raised some concerns.
Last week, President Obama released his Fiscal Year 2016 budget and chose to raid funding for the Veterans Choice Program that he signed into law a mere 6 months ago. The Choice Program was designed to directly help eligible veterans seek care outside the Veteran Affairs (VA) network if they experience a wait time over 30 days or don’t live within 40 miles of a VA clinic. As a pillar of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, it stood to show Americans that the VA was trying to improve and change its scandal plagued culture. Simply put, cutting funding for this program to relieve other deficit shortfalls is a step backward for those of us who supported this breakthrough legislation.
Although the President’s budget is just a proposal and the VA network has improved since its widespread scandal in 2014, members of Congress are still left asking themselves many of the same questions. Fundamentally, how can we effectively care for our veterans? Basic in nature, this question sets the foundation for improvement. To answer it, several questions need to be asked regarding the programs designed to improve our veterans’ lives:
- Was the VA consulted before determining cuts to funding for the Veterans Choice program?
- Are the cuts a signal by the VA that the program has been unsuccessful and will not be renewed?
- Although some veterans live within the 40 mile limit set by the VA to be eligible for the Choice Card program- roads seldom create such direct path. Shouldn’t the 40 mile VA clinic proximity rule apply to actual road mileage?
- What steps are being taken to address concerns about VA facilities that are within the 40 mile limit, but do not provide the necessary medical services the veteran requires?
- How effective has the VA been in reimbursing health care providers who accept the Choice Card?
As Congress continues with its budget process in the weeks and months ahead, knowing the current state of the Choice Card program will allow members to consider appropriate funding levels. We appreciate all the work you have done on behalf of veterans and look forward to your response.