VA says it will relax 40-mile rule for private medical care

Responding to pressure from Congress and veterans groups, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday it is relaxing a rule that makes it hard for some veterans in rural areas to prove they live at least 40 miles from a VA health site.

The change comes after complaints from lawmakers and advocates that the VA’s current policy has prevented thousands of veterans from taking advantage of a new law, intended to allow veterans in remote areas to gain access to federally paid medical care from local doctors.

The VA said it will now measure the 40-mile trip by driving miles as calculated by Google maps or other sites, rather than the current method of using straight-line mileage. The rule change is expected to roughly double the number of veterans eligible for the “Choice Card” program and could add billions of dollars in annual costs as tens of thousands of new veterans receive private medical care, which typically costs more than traditional care at VA hospitals and clinics.

“We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement.

Lawmakers from both parties had pressed for the change in recent months as it became clear that far fewer veterans than expected were taking advantage of a landmark law, adopted last year to make it easier for veterans to get private care paid for by the government. The law was passed in response to a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and falsified records covering up the delays.

“Veterans deserve the highest-quality health care and should not be denied this right simply because of where they live,” Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a joint statement. “We are pleased that Secretary McDonald is responding directly to concerns voiced by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and other members of Congress to ensure those reforms are working for all veterans.”

Isakson chairs the Senate veterans panel, while Blumenthal is the panel’s top Democrat.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the plan did not go far enough. The VA policy applies to any VA medical facility within 40 miles of a veteran’s home, even if the veteran needs specialized care that is farther away.

“The VA is denying access the law was intended to offer and forcing veterans to choose between traveling hours to a VA medical facility, paying out of pocket or going without care altogether,” Moran told Gibson. “Veterans are not being put first.”