WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday announced it loosened rules that limited veterans' access to healthcare outside the VA system.
The VA said it will now depend on driving distance, rather than the "as the crow flies" straight-shot measurement, to determine if a veteran is eligible for outside healthcare under the Choice Program.
Under the 2014 federal law known as the Veterans Choice Act, veterans who are forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment at a VA facility, or who have to travel more than 40 miles, are eligible to get an appointment outside the VA system. The program drew immediate criticism for its "as the crow flies" criteria from veterans who live in rural areas, where there are no straight roads or highways to the nearest VA medical facility.
"This is a common-sense adjustment to a rule that has the potential to significantly impact the success of the Veterans Choice Program," Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a joint statement.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars advocacy group said the new rule doesn't go far enough. It doesn't allow for veterans who require specialized care to receive treatment at a major VA clinic if a basic VA clinic is within the 40-mile area.
"The VFW is glad the VA agreed to change the 'crow flies' measurement to actual driving distances, but the VA must now eliminate the 40-mile bubble they placed around their medical facilities," the group said in a statement. "If a local VA cannot meet someone's medical requirements, then it is absurd for VA to require them to drive hundreds of miles to another VA that can."
The 2014 law, along with other changes, came after a nationwide mismanagement scandal that included employees across the country falsifying records to hide how long veterans were waiting for care.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said the change is expected to roughly double the number of eligible veterans.
"We've determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it. VA looks forward to the ongoing support of our partners as we continue to make improvements to this new program," he said.