Weekly Columns

Morris, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran from Arkansas, had a medical emergency and urgently needed to see a specialist. He was told it would take up to two months to see a doctor at the Little Rock Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facility. After waiting two weeks to schedule an appointment, he called my office for help. My staff and I were able to help get him an appointment with a doctor at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences. 

Our nation promised veterans access to quality health care for their service and sacrifice. Like Morris, many Arkansas veterans have experienced hassle and frustration with the VA when seeking medical care. This is one of the top issues I’ve heard from Arkansas veterans and members of Veteran Service Organizations. 

That’s why Congress passed the Veterans Choice Act in 2014. One of the highlights of the law is that it allows veterans who live 40 miles or more from a VA health facility to see non-VA providers. After hearing from Arkansas veterans who were denied participation in the program based on the mileage, I learned that the VA was misinterpreting this provision. VA calculated the distance from a veterans’ residence to the VA facility using a straight line instead of the accurate mileage using driving distance. 

Last year, my colleagues and I successfully urged VA to update the criteria for eligibility of the Veterans Choice program to more accurately reflect the distance veterans live from VA medical facilities. 

While Congress has made improvements, there is still work to do. As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I’ve talked with VA officials, including Secretary Robert McDonald, about the shortcomings of VA’s implementation of the program. It’s clear that the Veterans Choice program isn’t working as intended and needs fixing. 

That’s why I helped introduce the Veterans Choice Improvement Act of 2016 (S. 2646). This legislation is a critical step to eliminating the obstacles veterans face when accessing the services they need. 

VA alone is unable to meet the health care needs of our nation’s veterans. This legislation will make it easier for health care providers to work with the agency to ensure that veterans have access to the health care they earned. 

This legislation resolves some of the issues that I’ve heard from Arkansas veterans who rely on VA health care. It consolidates non-VA care programs to make it easier for the VA to manage resources efficiently and makes it easier for medical providers to work with the agency by modernizing the VA’s inefficient claims processing system. It also allows veterans to use local medical providers which will eliminate the need for them to drive to VA medical centers for care. 

We need to remove the hassles and delays our veterans face when accessing heath care.

The Veterans Choice Improvement Act makes good on our promise to care for the medical needs of Morris and other men and women who served our nation in uniform. I am committed to breaking the barriers that exist between our veterans and the health care they earned.