Signalling the Senate's commitment to fixing a problem at the Veterans Affairs Department that has become known as the "40-mile rule," senators on Thursday unanimously approved an amendment to address a shortcoming in the Veterans Choice program.
As part of its budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 11), the Senate passed an amendment offered by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would let veterans who live within 40 miles of a VA clinic with limited medical services to be eligible for Veterans Choice.
While the budget resolution is nonbinding, the vote of 100-0 strongly indicates the problem likely will be fixed in the coming months.
"Veterans who are entitled to care are not receiving it and, in a sense, false promises were made. If we get this issue correct, the VA then implements the Choice Act as intended," Moran said during comments on the Senate floor Thursday.
On Tuesday, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said legislation would be needed to allow the department to pay for private health care for veterans who live near a clinic but have to travel farther to a larger VA facility for treatment.
Gibson told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that vets are "frustrated" with the Choice program, but the department's hands are tied because language in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act prohibits the VA from offering the program to a veteran who lives within 40 miles of a VA health facility.
"Many veterans are frustrated with the Choice program," Gibson said. "Such confusion leads to lower use of Choice."
But lawmakers have pledged to make the fix. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate committee, said his staff would work with the staff of the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to draft legislation in the next two weeks to address the issue.
"The faster we act on that, the better off we are. I don't think there's any disagreement on the committee," Isakson said.
VA officials say the department distributed nearly 8 million VA Choice Cards when the program was initiated in November. To date, it has approved about 46,000 requests for care and managed 44,461 appointments.
VA has a process to get patients to private care if they face undue burdens accessing VA care, but only 125 have asked for a waiver so far, Gibson said.
Moran said he believes VA has the leeway to "interpret the law differently" and does not need formal legislation to change the rule.
But he added he will work to ensure that legislation will follow that guarantees VA will make the change.
"The quality of life of our veterans is affected — not because we don't want to care for them, but because we lack common sense to implement a law," Moran said.