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By Leo Shane III
Military Times Staff writer
Nov. 5, 2014 - 07:35AM

Veterans Affairs Department “choice cards” will arrive in some veterans’ mailboxes this week, allowing them to seek out private medical care and have VA pick up the bill.

But individuals already seeing lengthy waits for VA medical appointments won’t be among the first recipients, and may have to hold off for several more weeks before they can take advantage of the new program.

The two-year Veterans Choice program was approved by Congress in July as part of the massive VA reform legislation. The goal was to provide quicker access to medical care for individuals facing long waits or long travel times to VA facilities, in response to care delay coverups at numerous VA hospitals uncovered earlier this year.

Under congressional mandate, veterans were to be eligible for the new choice program this week. Starting Wednesday, veterans who live 40 miles from the closest VA facility will receive cards in the mail and be eligible to see local, private physicians.

Recipients will have to register as program participants through a pair of private health care contractors, who will issue a referral for care within five days.

“We’re hoping that for those veterans, this will all be pretty seamless,” said Dr. James Tuchschmidt, VA’s acting principal deputy under secretary for health.

Veterans facing waits of 30 days or more for VA care will be the second group to receive the choice cards, making them eligible for the program in late November. Those individuals were at the heart of the care delay scandals, but Tuchschmidt said the lag in getting them into the new program does not mean they are being ignored again.

“We’re already working hard to make sure they are getting care, just not necessarily under the choice program yet,” he said. “But we are taking care of those patients.”

Since June, VA has authorized more than 1.1 million health care appointments at non-VA facilities under already existing programs. Tuchschmidt said those efforts are ongoing, but the new choice program will allow more opportunity for individuals to seek private care in coming weeks.

That assumes that such care is available, however. While lawmakers have touted private care access as a solution to an overworked VA system, outside critics have noted that many medical specialties — especially mental health professionals — are in short supply nationwide.

Whether veterans will be able to find available private care options faster than they can get VA appointments remains to be seen. In a letter being sent to veterans, officials said the new program “does not impact your existing VA health care or any other VA benefit you may be receiving.”

About 700,000 veterans are included in the first two groups to receive the care cards. Starting in December, VA officials will begin mailing out choice cards to the other 8 million veterans enrolled in department health care programs, for future use if they become eligible.

Lawmakers had hoped those cards would be available to all veterans this month, but Tuchschmidt said meeting that goal would have overwhelmed and jeopardized the program.

Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said he’s willing to accept a slower rollout timeline if that means a more effective program.

“Remember that unrealistic expectations got them into this program,” he said, noting that much of the care delay scandal focused on administrators altering records to meet untenable national deadlines of no more than 30 days for patient appointments. “We would rather see them do this correctly than just throw this out there and cause more problems.”

Veterans can check their eligibility for the program by calling 1-866-606-8198 or visiting http://www.va.gov/opa/choiceact.

Along with issuing the choice cards, VA has implemented a host of other reforms mandated by the reform legislation, including issuing 27 new leases to provide more space for medical appointments, a department-wide review of employee performance goals to better focus on veterans needs, public sharing of wait time data at VA facilities, and several new new pilot programs for health care access and outreach.

The legislation also included language to ease departmental rules on firing senior executives for malfeasance or incompetence, but lawmakers and VA officials have sparred in recent months over the lack of use of that authority.

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