After demands from Tester, VA makes sweeping change to increase veterans’ access to care

VA officials call for passage of Tester’s “Veterans Access to Community Care Act”

(U.S. SENATE) – In response to demands from Senator Jon Tester and veterans across Montana, the VA is increasing veterans’ access to care and changing its policy by allowing veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to access care closer to home.

When the VA began implementing the Choice Program, it required that veterans live at least 40 miles “as the crow flies” from any VA facility, rather than 40 “driving” miles from such a facility, if they wanted to access non-VA care through the program. Tester heard from Montana veterans who said this policy wasn’t working on the ground, so he introduced legislation to fix it.

In January the VA responded to Tester’s bipartisan bill, the Veterans Access to Community Care Act, and announced that veterans could seek a waiver to access care through the Choice Program if they lived more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility and confronted unique geographical challenges.

Today the VA followed Tester’s lead once again and announced veterans will no longer need to seek a waiver to access this care, and all veterans who have to drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility will now have access to the Choice Program. According to the VA, this policy change is estimated to nearly double the number of veterans eligible for the program.

“Our nation has an obligation to live up to the commitments we have made to veterans, and this essential step allows folks in rural America to access the quality care they deserve,” said Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Today’s actions by the VA are welcome news, but I will continue to fight and tear down the barriers that keep too many veterans from accessing care.”

Today the VA also expressed its desire to change its 40-mile policy even further and allow the distance traveled by a veteran to be measured not just from any VA facility, but from a VA facility that provides the specific services sought by the veteran. However, VA officials said they need the statutory authority provided through legislation to make these further changes.

Tester’s bipartisan bill, which was introduced with Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), will allow the 40-mile requirement to be measured from a VA facility that provides the specific care or services sought by the veteran, as opposed to any VA facility. The U.S. House of Representatives has partner legislation in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee sponsored by Representative Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.).

Last summer, Tester helped author the VA reform bill and held a statewide listening tour to hear from Montana veterans about obstacles to care at the VA. In response to the feedback he received, Tester has introduced two packages of bills aimed at increasing access to health care and supporting employment for veterans and their families.