June 6 (UPI) -- Starting Thursday, more U.S. veterans will be able to start seeing private doctors -- as part of a new law born out of scandal five years ago when some vets died because they couldn't get appointments at VA centers.
The changes come as part of the Veterans Affairs Department's Mission Act. It was signed by President Donald Trump a year ago but some key provisions don't take effect until now. The Mission Act replaced the Veterans Choice Program and allows veterans to more easily receive medical care from non-VA physicians and urgent care facilities.
The new rules were published Wednesday in the Federal Register.
"President Trump promised to give veterans greater choice," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. "We are honoring that promise by making sure veterans have access to timely, high-quality care, whether from our VA facilities or our community providers."
Under the new rules, the VA will cover medical costs for vets to see non-VA doctors if they have to wait more than 20 days for an appointment or if their primary or mental healthcare provider is further than a 30-minute drive. For specialty care, the VA will pay for private doctors if vets must wait for more than 28 days or drive more than an hour to see a VA doctor.
Previously, the VA would pay for private care only when veterans had to drive more than 40 miles or wait more than 30 days for a VA appointment.
The department will also begin paying Thursday for visits to non-VA urgent care clinics without prior approval.
The changes are a result of new federal laws that responded to a 2014 scandal in which a VA inspector general's report found that dozens of veterans died waiting for care at VA hospital in Arizona, which had masked the length of wait times by keeping 1,700 veterans on an unofficial waitlist.
Official data showed a sample of more than 200 patients had waited 24 days on average for their appointments, while investigators found they had actually waited an average of 115 days. Former President Barack Obama implemented federal changes to the system and created seven different programs to address the problems. Trump's Mission Act combines many of them into one program.