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VA Choice Program Still Excluding Vets Who Need Help Most

Reuters/Jason Reed

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Jonah Bennett Contributor

Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne is accusing the Department of Veterans Affairs of deliberately misinterpreting legislation to hurt veterans and avoid downsizing.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, passed in 2014 after the VA was hit by a series of scandals, allows veterans to access private healthcare options if they meet certain conditions. One of the central conditions is that veterans have to be over 40 miles from a VA facility to qualify for private healthcare options.

According to Byrne, the original idea behind the act was for veterans to be able to access care not offered by their local VA facility. However, Byrne maintains that the VA decided to breach congressional intent by interpreting the legislation, such that if any VA facility exists within 40 miles of veterans, then veterans may not receive private healthcare under the program. This is still true regardless of whether the VA facility is able to provides services veterans actually need.

“This is very self-serving on the VA’s part,” Byrne told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “If the VA Choice Program is allowed to be taken to its logical conclusion, then it would downsize the VA, which is exactly what Congress intends. This is a government agency clinging onto life at the expense of veterans.”

The problem is that not all VA facilities are equal.

“We have a clinic in Mobile, Alabama, an outpatient clinic that provides a limited number of outpatient services for veterans, but if you have inpatient needs, or need to see a specialty physician, they simply don’t offer it there,” Byrne told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “But because it technically is a VA facility, veterans are forced to use it for whatever health needs they have. Even though we have a university medical center and several major private centers, our veterans might have to travel as far as another VA facility in Montgomery to receive the help they need.”

Byrne’s new legislation, the Real Choice for Veterans Act, aims to fix the problem by ensuring that if the local VA facility within a 40 mile range isn’t adequate, veterans can simply head to private sector care.

Democratic Rep. Tim Walz has also noticed how the VA is deciding to interpret last year’s legislation. Walz has written a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald specifically to criticize the department’s strange interpretation of the 40 mile rule. As reported by KARE 11, Air Force veteran Paul Walker, plagued by cancer, was rejected by the Choice Program because he lives within 40 miles of a VA facility.

Walker can’t drive because he needs to be consistently on his pain medication. And additionally, the VA facility doesn’t even provide the cancer treatment he needs.

In the future, Byrne wants to see veterans’ healthcare completely privatized, and this bill is just a step in that direction. While McDonald has objected to privatization proposals on the grounds that it strips the VA of its sacred mission, Byrne remains unconvinced.

“I think they have so completely failed,” Byrne said. “They’re an agency that has not only failed in their sacred mission, but they have covered up their failures. They don’t deserve to keep health care to themselves.”

McDonald has floated the idea of reallocating funds away from the Choice Program, pointing to statistics which show that it’s barely being used by veterans. A report recently released by Veterans of Foreign Wars found that, in fact, 80 percent of eligible veterans surveyed were turned away when they tried to apply for the program. A total of 92 percent said they were interested in non-VA healthcare options. (RELATED: Report: VA Choice Program Keeps Out 80 Percent Of Eligible Veterans)

The report argued that part of the reason why the acceptance rate is so low is because staff are untrained and can’t properly determine eligibility.

“Arguing that the program isn’t working is one of the most cynical statements by a government official that I’ve ever heard,” Byrne said. “It’s not working because his agency is not letting it work. This is pure government greed, and it’s by an agency that not only has failed our veterans, but as we know has committed unspeakable acts as they try and cover up what they’ve done to hurt veterans.”

As of March 19, three new co-sponsors have signed the bill, among them House Veterans Affairs Committee member Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado.

“This legislation is unquestionably a step in the right direction,” Shaun Rieley, outreach and research analyst at Concerned Veterans for America, told TheDCNF. “It makes a common-sense change to the law that was created by the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, allowing veterans who need particular kinds of care not offered by their local VA facility the choice to receive the needed care outside of the VA system.  The lack of that clarifying language in the original law was obviously an oversight, and this bill goes toward rectifying that.”

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