Wall Street Journal OpEd: Unfinished Repairs at Veterans Affairs
By John W. Stroud
April 14, 2015
The crisis in confidence at the Department of
Veterans Affairs—started last year after allegations by a whistleblower about
veterans dying on secret waiting lists—was caused by systematic failures at
every level: oversight that was too trusting; a decentralized management
system; a culture of indifference toward politically appointed leadership; and
a lack of proper resources, both human and fiscal.
But in the wake of public outcry, much progress has
been made. One of the biggest leaps was passage in August last year of the
Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. The legislation allows veterans
to see non-VA health-care providers if they live more than 40 miles from the
nearest VA medical facility, or if they cannot be seen at a VA facility within
The Veterans Choice Program isn’t a solution for
every challenge the VA faces, and positive changes haven’t come as fast or been
as thorough as some might like. But one large step forward came in late March
when the VA announced that it was changing how the 40-mile rule is calculated.
Previously, the distance was drawn in a straight
line, or “as the crow flies.” But geography often made this measurement
unhelpful and misleading. For example: The north rim of the Grand Canyon is
roughly 10 miles away from the south rim—well within the 40-mile rule bubble—but
it is 200 miles away “as the crow drives.” Many veterans who thought they were
eligible for the choice program were understandably confused when they were
told that they technically fell within the 40-mile radius. The VA deserves
credit for listening to their frustrations and switching its calculation to
actual driving distances.
No exemption, however, has been announced for
veterans who have a local VA that cannot serve their medical needs. For
instance, a Vietnam veteran from Jackson, Tenn., currently seeks treatment for
a neurological condition in Memphis, which requires him to travel, round-trip,
170 miles. He would prefer to visit a non-VA doctor closer to home through the
Veterans Choice Program, but he is ineligible because he resides within 40 miles
of a VA outpatient clinic—a clinic that does not have a neurologist on staff.
It is absolutely unthinkable to expect any veteran
to travel such distances for treatment, especially knowing that non-VA care is
readily available much closer to home—if only the VA would deem him eligible.
The House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees are reviewing this problem,
but Congress knows that the more the 40-mile bubble is expanded, the more the
program will cost. We believe that veterans should be given the choice, as the
name of the law passed last year implies.
At this point, the successful implementation of the
Veterans Choice Program hinges largely on the VA getting out of its own way—and
that includes training its staff to properly explain the program’s nuances to
inquiring patients. My organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United
States, released in March a survey of more than
2,500 veterans. Of those who believed they were eligible for the choice
program, only one in five were offered the option to participate. That figure
is getting better, however.
Preliminary results from our latest survey, which
we expect to complete and release later this month, show that more than a third
of respondents are now being offered options for non-VA care. That’s an
improvement we hoped to see as the program continues to mature. But more work
is still required to ensure every veteran who is eligible is afforded the
option to participate.
The VFW may sometimes be called the VA’s harshest
critic, but we are always in fact its strongest supporter. We believe we must
improve upon the programs and benefits that veterans are offered, not dismantle
what has taken so long to build. We remain confident that the VA—together with
lawmakers and partners such as the VFW—can fix what’s broken, hold its
employees accountable for their actions, and in the end regain the trust of our
nation’s veterans and their families.
Mr. Stroud is the national commander of the
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and its auxiliaries.
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