More veterans can see non-VA doctors at VA expense starting Thursday

WASHINGTON – Veterans will have expanded access to medical care outside Department of Veterans Affairs facilities beginning Thursday under a law signed by President Donald Trump last year and touted as a major achievement by Trump on the campaign trail.

Rules established under the law and published Wednesday in the Federal Register say the VA will pay for veterans to see non-VA doctors if they have to wait longer than 20 days or drive more than 30 minutes for primary or mental healthcare at a VA facility.

For specialty care, they can see private doctors at VA expense if they have to wait longer than 28 days or drive more than an hour to see a VA provider.

Previously, veterans who had to drive more than 40 miles or wait longer than 30 days could choose to see a private doctor paid for by the VA.

VA officials estimated the new rules could increase the number of veterans eligible for VA-sponsored private care to as many as 2.1 million – up from about 560,000.

The rules going into effect Thursday also allow veterans to go to non-VA urgent care clinics at VA expense without prior approval, though they may have to pay a co-payment.

Trump signed the law last June, known as the VA MISSION Act, but its key provisions didn’t take effect until now.

A ‘seamless transition’

“Veterans should expect a fairly transparent and seamless transition to the new Veterans Community Care Program,” the agency said in a recent post explaining the new VA program.  

The expansion of veterans’ medical care choices was a key campaign promise for Trump, and its rollout will be closely watched by veterans’ groups, who have worried it will divert money from VA health care. They have said that diversion would damage the agency’s ability to provide care, causing more veterans to get non-VA care, and ultimately triggering the privatization of the agency.

The VA said it still expects non-VA care will be a “supplement to the outstanding health care VA provides to veterans in-house.”

“VA employees are passionate about caring for veterans and are highly experienced in meeting veterans’ specific needs,” the agency wrote. “Because of this, VA believes veterans will continue to choose VA.”

The agency previously provided outside medical care under seven different programs, including the so-called Choice program, which was created in 2014 after veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA. The new law combined those into a single, new program with expanded eligibility criteria.

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