Isakson to VA: Unacceptable to Tell Veteran ‘We Can’t Help’

Calls on VA leaders to ‘stop making excuses,’ fully implement Veterans’ Choice reforms

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, today called on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to act quickly to implement a more sensible interpretation of the Veterans’ Choice distance criteria to allow veterans better access to health care.

At a committee hearing held today, March 24, 2015, Isakson raised concerns over how the VA has implemented the distance criteria that was included in sweeping reforms passed last year in the Veterans’ Access, Choice and Accountability Act. The distance criteria, known informally as the “40-mile rule,” requires the VA to allow a veteran to receive care outside the VA health system if the veteran resides more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.

Earlier today, VA Secretary Robert McDonald announced that the VA would change its interpretation of the Veterans’ Choice Program's “40-mile rule” in response to repeated calls from Isakson and other members of Congress to address these challenges and expand veterans’ ability to receive care.

“This interpretation makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make a lot of sense is that it took so long for VA to come to that decision, but I’m glad it finally did,” said Isakson. “I’d rather …see to it that our veterans are being helped instead of VA continuing to make excuses and telling a veteran who would risk his life for our country that we just can’t help him. That’s just not right.”

Since the Veterans’ Choice Program began in November 2014, the VA has measured the 40-mile distance “as the crow flies,” or in a straight line on a map, as opposed to measuring the 40 miles in driving distance, thus disallowing veterans who live within the 40-mile radius of a facility but have to drive more than 40 miles to get there from benefiting from the Veterans’ Choice Program.

At today’s hearing, Isakson called on VA Deputy Secretary Sloane Gibson to swiftly implement the changes in the VA’s interpretation of the distance criteria so that all veterans could receive the proper care they need, regardless of proximity to a VA facility.

“The Senate VA Committee’s job, and the members of the Senate’s job, is to get more money if we need to; it is not to make excuses as to why we can’t do things for our veterans,” said Isakson. “The veterans expect us to deliver and Congress expects y’all to deliver… We’ll do it right the first time and we’ll be committed to providing funding to deliver care to our veterans. I appreciate very much the Secretary’s movement to address the issue with the 40-mile rule and I appreciate that the VA is now talking about what we can do rather than talking about what we can’t do.”

Isakson also pointed to a second ongoing issue with the Veterans’ Choice Program’s distance criteria –veterans who live within 40 miles of a VA facility but are unable to receive the necessary treatment at that particular facility are currently ineligible to receive care outside the VA health system. Isakson indicated that he and Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking Democrat on the Senate VA Committee, will work with VA on legislation to address this issue.

“The faster we act on that the better off we will be. If there is a legislative impediment, let’s fix it, because our intent is to see to it that veterans get the service,” said Isakson.

Isakson questioned Deputy Secretary Gibson about how the VA will properly communicate these changes to veterans. Isakson highlighted the lack of information available to veterans about the Veterans’ Choice Program, including information about the appeals process.

“As long as the VA is doing everything it can do to see to it that veterans are not frustrated, but in fact are pleased with the communication they get, then I think we will all be better off,” said Isakson.

View Isakson’s opening remarks from today’s hearing here.

Video of today’s hearing is available online here

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The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 114th Congress.

Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate VA Committee since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the military as well as more than 750,000 veterans.