Bill To Improve Health Care Access For Rural Veterans Passes The Senate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Access to Community Care for Veterans Act of 2015, legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, passed the United States Senate today by unanimous consent. This legislation would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to expand eligibility of the Choice Program to cover veterans who reside more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA facility that offers the specific care they need. The bill must now be considered and passed by the House of Representatives before it can be sent to the President.
 
      “This common-sense change is an enormous victory for veterans both in Maine and across our nation who often face barriers to accessing care, particularly those living in rural communities,” said Senator Collins. “This improved access would relieve many veterans who struggle with the time and effort it takes to drive long distances for specialty health services.”  
 
      “Maine’s veterans deserve accessible, high-quality medical care – but too often obstacles like long drives or dangerous weather can stand in the way of a trip to the VA,” Senator King said. “By allowing veterans to receive care outside of the VA and take advantage of health services provided by clinics in their local communities, we are ensuring that veterans have the type of flexibility necessary to best meet their individual health care needs. When our veterans have sacrificed so much for us, the least we can do is make sure that the government is a partner when it comes to getting medical care, not just another barrier – and that’s what this fix helps accomplish."
 
      In February, Senators Collins and King led a bipartisan group of 42 Senators in expressing concerns about the implementation of the Choice Program in a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald.
 
      In March, Senator Collins met with Secretary McDonald and discussed many issues important to Maine veterans, including the 40-mile rule as it relates to the Veterans Choice Card Program.
 
      One week later, the VA announced that it would make a critical change to the 40-mile rule, rejecting the “as the crow flies,” or a straight line distance measurement. With the change in calculating the actual distance that the veteran would have to travel, the number of eligible veterans nationwide who can receive care in their communities roughly doubles.
 
      While that change was an important first step, the Choice Card rules still did not consider the type of care available within 40 miles of where a veteran lives. In April, during a VA Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Senator Collins raised this concern with Secretary McDonald, asking the VA to “further expand eligibility of the Choice Program to cover veterans who reside more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA facility that offers the specific service sought by the veteran.” The bill passed today by the Senate would direct the VA to make this necessary change.
 
      Senators Collins and King joined Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), in introducing the Access to Community Care for Veterans Act of 2015.