"So this is called the Choice Program Improvement Act. It speaks for itself. This bill will extend and improve the Veterans Choice Program so that more veterans can see the doctor of their choice -- you got it? The doctor of their choice -- and don’t have to wait and travel long distances for VA care. Some people have to travel five hours, eight hours, and they'll have to do it on a weekly basis, and even worse than that. It's not going to happen anymore." -- Donald J. Trump
President Trump signed S.544 into law on April 20, 2017
(Sec. 1) This bill amends the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 to eliminate the August 7, 2017, sunset date for the Veterans Choice Program, thus allowing the program to operate until all of the money in the Veterans Choice Fund is expended.
(Sec. 2) The bill makes the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) the primary payer (currently the VA is the secondary payer) for medical care relating to non-service connected disabilities and recovery of costs from third parties for certain care under the program.
(Sec. 3) The VA may share medical information with a non-VA entity (including private entities and other federal agencies) that provides veterans with authorized hospital care or medical services. Such entity may not redisclose or use such information for a purpose other than that for which the disclosure was made.
Did S.544 help "improve the Veterans Choice Program" so that veterans don't have to travel or wait forever to see a doctor?
While this bill does help on the back-end by helping providers get veteran records faster and it allows 3rd party providers to get paid easier, it doesn't do anything to address the issues faced by many veterans trying to take advantage of this program.
What problems could there possibly be?
• It doesn't fix the problem of being constantly unenrolled/inactivated on the part of TriWest.
• It doesn't fix the problem of having to call the "VA Choice Champion" and leaving multiple messages to receive no callbacks and answers as to why you were, yet again, inactivated.
• It doesn't address the lack of vetting of community doctors who want to participate in this program..and I'm assuming here...because they wanted guaranteed government money. The doctor that I've seen flat out said he's a pulmonologist and doesn't see primary care (the reason I made the appointment.)
• It doesn't address how a CBOC (Community Based Outpatient Clinic) nullifies the 40 mile rule even though they provide none of the primary services that veterans use regularly including Mental Health counseling, Urgent Care, or Nutrition. Literally, I think the only service the CBOC performs is blood draws.
• It doesn't address how veterans leave multiple voicemails and email messages using the VA's "Secure Messaging System" for their assigned primary care provider at the CBOC and NO ONE FREAKING GETS BACK TO YOU!
• I still have to drive 65 miles to VA West LA from Palmdale to receive basic services.
• I still have to drive 65 miles once or twice a week if I wanted to continue with mental health counseling, which I need and want, but just can't handle/afford the drive anymore.
To have the end date of the program removed is great; we just need to make sure that there's a permanent solution to the issues of the VA before the funding runs out.
There seems to be a verbalized commitment from the Trump administration with obvious backing of Congress and the American people to get these issues fixed.
My prayer is that the American people don't hear misleading news like what we heard today and become complacent... the problems that plague the treatment of our veterans is REAL.
Michael Campbell, Specialist, US Army Combat Veteran, Gulf War