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Survey shows VA is botching the very program meant to fix initial health care mess

The Veterans of Foreign Wars has released a survey showing that the Department of Veterans Affairs is having major problems implementing a new program aimed at ensuring veterans can receive care outside the VA system, and that 80 percent of veterans who qualify for the program aren't being given a chance to use it.

VFW's survey focused on the ability of veterans to use the new Veterans Choice Program, which Congress created last year and the VA implemented in November. Under the program, veterans who can't get VA care after 30 days, or who live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA center, have the option of getting care outside the VA.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald has said he's making progress fixing the broken VA, but a new survey shows the VA is having major problems even trying to help get veterans care outside the VA system. Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The program was a reaction to the VA's systemic failure to get care to veterans quickly, and its use of secret, unofficial waitlists that served to mask how long thousands of veterans were waiting for care.

But the VFW's survey of about 2,500 members indicates that the new choice program is so far failing to work for many veterans, a sign it could be failing veterans around the country. For example, it found that only a fifth of VFW members who qualify for the program were offered a chance to use it.

"The VFW survey shows that 80 percent of the 1,068 survey participants who reported that they either lived 40 miles from a VA medical facility or could not be seen by VA within 30 days said they were not afforded the choice to receive non-VA care," it added. "The VFW is still concerned that these veterans may continue to be denied access to timely care due to VA's lack of capacity for delivering consistent training to its staff responsible for properly informing veterans of their eligibility and placing veterans on the VCL."

The VCL is the Veterans Choice List, a list the VA keeps of veterans who qualify for the choice program.

One related problem identified by the VFW is that the VA currently puts vet on the VCL, but then transfers those veterans to outside health care contractors just once a week. That system is creating delays and confusion for veterans who are told they will get outside care, but are then told by contractors that they cannot yet get that care.

"Understandably, this was a source of great frustration for veterans who felt they were receiving conflicting information from VA and the contract call centers," the VFW wrote.

Despite the existence of these problems, the VFW acknowledged that the VA had just three months to establish the program, which many health experts say is an unreasonably short time. For that reason, the VFW said it expected to find problems, and is working with the VA to fix them.

"This program is intended to be the solution to last year's nationwide crisis in care and confidence," said VFW National Commander John Stroud. "The VFW will not let it fail."

The VFW made several recommendations, including that the VA must train people better to ensure veterans can use the program, and ensure the VA is getting care to veterans once these veterans qualify for non-VA care.

Read the VFW's report here:

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