The $15 Billion Veterans Choice Card
What is Veterans' Choice? In prior blogs, we noted that Congress recently authorized up to $15 billion in expenditures through the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The Act is designed to improve existing care and to improve veterans’ access to health care when care from the Veterans Affairs (“VA”) will take too long. As veterans and disability advocates, we’ve received a lot of questions about this new act from friend and clients alike. The following are answers to a few of the most common ones.
What Does It Do?
The centerpiece of the Act is a special $10 billion Veterans Choice Fund. The Act authorizes the VA to buy care from non-VA care providers for veterans when those veterans face long waits for VA care (defined as more than 30 days) or if they reside more than 40 miles from the VA care. Where the veteran meets these conditions, the Act requires the VA to provide the veteran with a “Veterans Choice Card” to facilitate such non-VA medical care.
Congress passed the Act intending to eliminate the VA’s abysmal patient wait times. As those who watch headlines remember, earlier this year VA health administrators and staff were caught falsifying wait times in order to meet goals tied to bonus pay and job evaluations. Instead of merely demanding greater efficiency (as was the case in the recent past), the Act extends greater resources to the VA so that the VA has a better chance of meeting actual patient demand.
The Act also authorizes the VA to spend $5 billion to expand its own capacity to deliver care by hiring more physicians, medical staff, and by improving the VA’s existing physical infrastructure.
Eligibility for the act extends only to those veterans who have enrolled in VA health care by August 1, 2014 or, if enrolled after, have served on active duty in a theater of combat within five years of enrolling. Even then, unfortunately, not all veterans who become eligible for non-VA care will get to choose their outside provider. Moreover, not all non-VA care providers will opt to treat veterans through the VA coordinated care program (even if the veterans are existing patients). For both, the issue revolves around reimbursements: the VA cannot pay higher rates than Medicare allows (with minor exceptions) and some physicians complain that VA reimbursements are not made in a timely fashion.
How Will it be Funded?
The federal government plans to pay for the $10 billion Veterans Choice Fund by adding to the national debt; in contrast, the $5 billion authorization for better VA care will come from cuts within the VA, including executive bonuses and by deferring rate cuts for certain VA home loans.
Is the Act a Positive Move for the VA?
Although the Act serves as an important step forward for the VA, the Act will also serve to increase administrative burdens on an already-burdened VA. For example, VA administrators will now have to coordinate and manage a vast expansion of private sector care, monitor the quality of that private care, and then integrate those medical records back into the VA’s health care system. Veterans can only wait and see whether the VA, under new VA Secretary Robert McDonald, will succeed. We are optimistic.
Interested in Learning More About Veterans Benefits?
The attorneys at the Rocky Mountain Disability Law Group specialize in protecting military veterans and their rights. If you are a disabled veteran with questions about how recent VA developments affect you, contact our veterans disability attorneys today.