Veterans around the nation won a victory against what has proven to be an inept Department of Veterans affairs, which announced on Tuesday that it would eliminate an onerous restriction on the ability of veterans to get health care outside the VA system — a restriction that congressional Republicans have been fighting for months to eliminate.
Congress passed a law last year to enact the Veterans Choice program, a response to the scandal in which the VA was found to be lying about how long veterans were waiting for medical appointments. Under the new program, veterans can access non-VA care free of charge if they live more than 40 miles away from the nearest VA clinic.
The Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois. The VA announced Tuesday that it would ease a restrictive rule that was preventing some veterans from getting care outside the VA. Scott Olson/Getty Images
But the VA implemented that law in the most restrictive way possible, by only letting veterans use the program if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA clinic, and by measuring the straight-line "as the crow flies" distance from their home to the clinic.
By interpreting the law that way, a veteran who might have to drive 45 miles on winding roads to get to a VA clinic would not qualify for the Veterans Choice program if a straight line showed he or she was just 39 miles away.
According to a House aide, members of Congress were pushing the VA to amend its interpretation by counting the miles it takes to drive to a VA clinic, and not the straight-line distance. And on Tuesday, the VA finally relented.
"We've determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it," the VA said. "VA looks forward to the ongoing support of our partners as we continue to make improvements to this new program."
While it sounds like it could be a little change, it will mean a dramatic increase in the number of veterans who can use the program. The VA said the change would roughly double the number of veterans who can apply.
But while the VA praised its decision to make the change, some in Congress remained skeptical of the VA's commitment to the program, given that the Obama administration has already tried to make cuts to it, amid claims that veterans aren't that interested in using it.
The administration's plan to cut the program was revealed in its budget plan for 2016, which said it wanted to use some of the money for the program for other purposes. That plan outraged some in Congress, who noted that the program was only created last year, and that Obama already wants to chop it down.
"When a near-unanimous Congress worked with President Obama last year to create the choice program, we made a promise to veterans to give them more freedom in their health care decisions," said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). "I will not stand idly by while the president attempts to renege on that promise."
On Tuesday, Miller noted that he welcomed the VA's proposed change, and said it would have been nice if they made that move "before VA attempted to take money away from the choice program, claiming a lack of interest among veterans."
Miller also noted that a recent survey from the Veterans of Foreign Wars showed that 80 percent of its own members weren't being offered a choice to use it.