GUEST COLUMN, Jerry Moran, US Senator
In our hyper-partisan political environment, there’s not much that Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill agree on. But when it comes to our veterans, all Americans believe that our nation’s heroes deserve the best possible healthcare when they separate from duty. That’s why we are so proud that Congress unanimously passed and President Trump signed into law this week our Veterans Choice Improvement Act – legislation that extends the Veterans Choice Program and ensures our veterans won’t have to wait weeks or months, or drive long distances, to get the care they need when they need it.
This bipartisan legislation comes three years after the scandal in which our country was shocked to learn that dozens of veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA. In the weeks and months following that revelation, we learned of several more cases of wait-time manipulation taking place at VA hospitals around the country. In response, both chambers of Congress quickly came together to pass legislation that would fulfill our moral responsibility to veterans by making certain they receive quality healthcare in a timely manner.
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which became law in August 2014, established the Veterans Choice Program, giving veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or are forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment the option to receive healthcare from a local community provider. Though the Choice Program has much room for improvement, and growing pains have certainly accompanied the law’s expedited implementation, it has improved access to healthcare for our nation’s veterans. In fact, since the inception of Choice, more than seven million appointments have been scheduled with community providers for medical services ranging from diagnostic tests and physical therapy to life saving heart and cancer care.
Given that the Veterans Choice Program was authorized and funded through emergency measures, it also carried a looming end date. The VA has been preparing to limit medical services under the Choice Program for veterans whose treatments would extend beyond the program’s August 2017 expiration.
Our bipartisan legislation, which was also sponsored by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman and Ranking Member, Senators Johnny Isakson and Jon Tester, eliminates the August 2017 expiration, streamlines the process between the VA and community providers, and reduces the burden on veterans and the community providers who serve them.
Extending the Veterans Choice Program helps to ensure the roughly 1.5 million veterans who benefit from Choice will continue to have an option to access quality healthcare closer to home from the 350,000 participating community providers. In addition, Congress will now have more time to work with the new VA Secretary to determine what the next iteration of access to community providers through the VA ought to look like. A consolidated and integrated network of community providers is critical for the VA to reduce the burden on those who have sacrificed for their nation and are seeking access to the care they earned through the VA. Congress will work to make certain the VA strikes the right balance – delivering on our nation’s commitment to our veterans to provide access to healthcare when and where a veteran needs it.
As we work to ensure all veterans have access to care, we must develop an informed, strategic plan for the future of veteran healthcare through the VA. No veteran should worry they won’t be able to get the care they need. Where there are gaps that local providers can fill, such as in rural areas, the community should fill them. Our veterans should feel confident in the large network of providers both inside and outside VA facilities that are dedicated to their needs.
We have a duty to make certain that no undue burden is placed on the veteran in accessing care. Whether that veteran is in Hays, Kansas, and forced to drive more than 180 miles to get a shingles shot, or that veteran is in Phoenix, Arizona, waiting months to receive care at their local VA hospital, the needs of the veteran have to come first.
We must never go back to the pre-scandal days where a VA bureaucrat had the final say as to where and when a veteran got their healthcare. We will continue working with our colleagues in the Senate and the new administration to follow through on our commitment to those who have borne the price of battle for our nation.