Standing Up for America's Veterans

AAFP Tells VA How to Grow Veterans Choice Program

May 28, 2015 11:37 am News Staff

The Veterans Choice Program was established by the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act that was signed into law in August 2014; the program was meant to expand health care access to America's veterans, and the AAFP is determined to ensure that happens.

[Flag, stethoscope, military uniform and dog tags]

As an example of the Academy's commitment to the program, consider a May 20 letter(2 page PDF) from AAFP Board Chair Reid Blackwelder, M.D., of Kingsport, Tenn., to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) voicing Academy support for an interim final rule( titled "Driving Distance Eligibility for the Veterans Choice Program."

The rule, published in the April 24 Federal Register and effective on that same date, changed how the VA measures distance to determine a veteran's eligibility for the program.

The VA ditched its "straight-line or geodesic distance" method of measuring the distance from a veteran's residence to the nearest VA medical facility to one of "considering the distance the veteran must drive to get to that facility."

In response, Blackwelder agreed that the decision would mean an uptick in veteran eligibility for the program. That's a good outcome, because the general intent of the law was to "expand access to health care for veterans," said Blackwelder.

The access issue opened a window of opportunity for Blackwelder, and he took it.

Blackwelder reiterated suggestions he'd made to VA Secretary Robert McDonald in February that would help expand veterans' access to non-VA entities and providers.

Referencing the Veterans Choice Program, Blackwelder said, "The AAFP strongly believes that payment at or above Medicare levels is necessary to promote access to primary care services for veterans." He noted that many family physicians reported contracts offering them payment at 30 percent less than Medicare.

In addition, the VA disallows collection of copayments and deductibles at the time of service -- a requirement the AAFP considers "unworkable and entirely contrary to common medical office billing practices," said Blackwelder. Furthermore, including rural health clinics in the program would only serve to increase veterans' access to services, he added.

Finally, Blackwelder again urged the VA to implement policies that would benefit veterans and the entire VA health care system by allowing civilian family physicians to

  • provide primary care services to eligible veterans,
  • write prescriptions that could then be filled at VA pharmacies,
  • order diagnostic tests at VA facilities,
  • refer patients to subspecialists and other health care professionals at VA facilities and
  • provide care to eligible veterans with the full protection of the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The AAFP supports the intent of the law and the Veterans Choice Program, but continues to have "substantial concerns" with the program's implementation, said Blackwelder. "We strongly urge the VA to address these recommendations" to attract non-VA medical practices into the program, he added.

Related AAFP News Coverage
Change Doubles Number of Vets Eligible for Care Outside VA

New VA Program Expanding Veterans' Access to Care Up and Running

VA Launches Campaign to Recruit Physicians
Move Is Intended to Shore Up Primary Care Physician Workforce