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Lawmakers laud vets’ ‘40-mile rule’

Change made to improve access to health care

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs’ announcement that it will change its “40-mile rule” to make it easier for veterans to receive nearby health care has left lawmakers jolly.

“Our goal is to make health care more accessible and available to our veterans, and it should be as simple, convenient and easy as possible,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in a statement. “This is a common-sense change that will help Colorado’s veterans who live in rural communities.”

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, described the rule change as “welcome news” for veterans living in remote communities.

“The whole problem could have been avoided by using common sense,” Tipton said in a statement. “Veterans deserve to have access to high-quality health care in their communities, and while it’s frustrating that it has taken the VA this long to take corrective action on this issue, we are happy they have finally made it happen.”

The VA currently uses a straight-line “40-mile rule” – only veterans who live more than 40 miles in a straight line from a VA facility can use a non-VA facility. That means that someone living inside 40 miles might have to use a VA facility yet travel much farther to get there, particularly in mountainous communities such as in Western Colorado. The new rule would account for the distance that veterans have to travel from their residence to reach a VA facility.

Congress passed the Veterans’ Choice Act last summer, which allows veterans access to non-VA community care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or if they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.

The policy change will be made through regulatory action in the coming weeks, the VA said in a statement.

Bennet and Tipton have been two of several advocates for the rule change.

Bennet wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald in November, which outlined the concerns of Colorado veterans and requested the rule be re-examined.

According to the letter, Bennet has heard from several veterans who live 39 miles from the nearest VA facility under a straight-line distance who were disqualified from receiving non-VA care through the Veterans Choice Program, even though they have to travel more than 50 miles because of the mountains.

“This is exactly the set of circumstances meant to be covered under the geographical exception Congress outlined in the legislation,” the letter reads.

Tipton co-sponsored legislation in January that would provide health care at non-VA facilities to veterans who reside more than 40 miles driving distance from the closest VA medical facility.

Tipton’s office also urged the VA to re-examine the rule upon hearing concerns from constituents.

But while the rule change has made lawmakers jolly, one veteran told The Durango Herald that the rule change means “absolutely nothing.”

William Chandler, who served in the 25th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, said he had to make a round trip of more than 500 miles between Durango and Albuquerque to receive medical treatment.

Chandler said that the VA facility in Durango only gave him a referral to receive treatment in Albuquerque. He said he was not well enough to make the trip, but the doctor disagreed, leaving him without an alternative plan for medical care.

“(The change to the 40-mile rule) is meaningless,” Chandler said. “Veterans still have to travel hundreds of miles to get medical care. I am personally embarrassed to have to go through this to get help.

“This veterans-choice program is one big lie,” he said.

Michael Cipriano is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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