Report: VA Choice Program Keeps Out 80 Percent Of Eligible Veterans

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The program rolled out by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to specifically address manipulated wait lists has left lawmakers wondering why so few veterans have opted to participate.

A new report from Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) aims to answer that question, and the answer doesn’t look good for the VA.

After indisputable evidence surfaced from across the country of an epidemic of manipulated wait lists, incompetence, poor care, and endless delays, on Nov. 5, 2014, the VA launched the Veterans Choice Program. The program’s goal to expedite access to private care if vets have been waiting longer than 30 days or live farther than 40 miles away from a VA hospital.

The report examines the new program’s track record through a survey of more than 2,500 VFW members.

For starters, 43 percent of veterans surveyed weren’t aware the program even existed. According to VFW, 80 percent of 1,068 survey respondents who stated that they met the two conditions necessary to qualify under the choice program — being 40 miles away from a VA facility or waiting for longer than 30 days to receive a VA appointment — were not allowed access to the program, owing to poor staff training and miscommunication.

All of this means that roughly 19 percent of eligible veterans were able to access the program.

For that same program-eligible set of veterans, 92 percent said they were interested in non-VA care options.

For veterans who were actually given the choice of receiving either VA care or private healthcare, 53 percent ended up choosing private. As a result, 58 percent of veterans who used the Veterans Choice Program said they would recommend it to fellow veterans.

A poll issued in February by Concerned Veterans for American confirmed that veterans really are interested in other options, showing that 88 percent of veterans believe the VA needs to increase access to private healthcare, with 95 percent saying that regardless of the provider, the level of healthcare should be of the best quality.

But VA Secretary Robert McDonald is still trying to persuade Congress to reallocate funds away from the Choice Program to accommodate veterans who choose to receive healthcare from the VA, mostly according to McDonald, because veterans seem reluctant to use the program. Legislators, too, are puzzled as to why the program is attracting so few veterans, leading Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to noted that “[t]he choice card program basically seems to be not working.”

That reluctance, according to VFW, is first due to the fact that the program is relatively new, and second, because when veterans inquire about the program, they are often unduly rebuffed by staff incapable of determining eligibility, resulting in only a 19 percent acceptance rate among veterans who actually qualify.

Additionally, VFW found that “VA’s wait-time standard still requires veterans to wait unreasonably long and remains susceptible to data manipulation.” This wait-time standard is involved in the calculation of the 30-day period, after which veterans are supposed to be allowed to access the program.

“It is important that veterans have the opportunity to make informed health care decisions that best fit their own individual circumstances,” VFW National Commander John W. Stroud said in a release. “The Veterans Choice Program is an ambitious initiative that is supposed to offer more options to veterans who need it, which is why the VFW has an obligation to keep our pulse on the veterans’ community to ensure the program works.”

Stroud is visiting Washington right now with several hundred VFW advocates to deliver the report to all members of Congress as part of this week’s VFW National Legislative Conference.

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