COLUMN: Preserving Veterans Choice
If you speak with any local veteran in Central Washington, as I do regularly, you will likely hear stories of frustration with the Veterans Administration. While there are many dedicated staff and VA providers, our veterans deserve so much more than long drives and long wait times to receive the care they have been promised.
The Veterans Choice program allows veterans to visit private health care providers in the community outside the VA itself. Veterans Choice was designed in response to the wait-times scandals at the Phoenix VA, which resulted in the deaths of veterans while waiting for care. The program assists 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, which is particularly important for veterans who live in rural communities.
The program has had some kinks to work out: In the last Congress, I pushed with my colleagues for the VA to use common sense to define the 40-mile rule of as driving distance instead of the previous definition of 40 miles ‘as a crow flies.’ I was glad to see the VA responded to veterans’ and Congress’ calls for improvements and made that change administratively in 2015. The program has been so popular that more than 1.6 million veterans have used it since its inception in 2014.
This year, the well-received program was set to expire on August 7 unless it received more funding to continue operating. Ending the program would have interrupted care for thousands of veterans nationwide. I supported legislation that was passed by Congress and signed by the President, the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act, to provide $2 billion for the Veterans Choice Fund, extending the program to continue to serve veterans who have difficulty accessing VA care.
The motto of the VA comes from President Abraham Lincoln’s promise in his second inaugural address “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” The VA Choice Program help accomplish that mission on behalf of the men and women who have served in uniform.