MINNEAPOLIS - In March, a KARE 11 investigation exposed major problems with the Veterans Choice Card Program that left many veterans feeling as if they have no choice at all.
Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz says he expects changes will continue to be made to fix that program designed that was created to reduce delays and provide medical care for veterans close to their homes.
While the VA has agreed to stop using "as the crow flies" measurements to judge the distances a veteran has to travel to get medical care and instead measure by actual driving distance, they are still forcing some veterans to travel hundreds of miles because the nearest VA facility doesn't provide the care they need. "These are things that make people frustrated with government, frustrated with the VA. It makes no logical sense," said Congressman Walz during an interview with KARE 11 Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe.
Even more than measuring travel as the crow flies, what Congressman Walz finds illogical is using a medical facility incapable of providing the care a veteran needs, to deny that veteran access to the Choice Card program.
"A clinic that doesn't provide those services why would that be counted as disallowing you to use the choice card," questions Walz. But that's exactly what KARE 11's investigation found happening to MN veterans.
"I got this card but I can't use it," said Mark Gendron, a veteran who deals with PTSD. It takes Gendron a drive of nearly 70 miles to see a VA psychiatrist in Saint Cloud. But Gendron was denied use of the Choice Program because he lives within 40 miles of the Brainerd VA clinic. That clinic does not offer psychiatric care.
"It seems like they're trying to find more ways or reasons to make you not eligible instead of allowing you to be eligible," said Gendron.
The VA claims that is the rule Congress signed into law, but members of Congress including Representative Walz, who sits on the House VA Committee, claim the VA has the leeway to interpret the law differently. "It makes absolutely no sense that we would mean 40 miles if that clinic that's within 40 miles doesn't provide say psychiatric or audiology services," Walz added "Why should you then be stuck at that clinic that doesn't provide what you need?"
That's the very question veterans like Gendron have been asking for months. If the VA refuses to fix the hole in the program administratively, Walz says on this issue, a sharply divided Congress, sees eye to eye and will make a legislative change. "The desire to come back and do this as quickly as possible is strong," said Walz.
The Senate, as part of its budget resolution just voted 100 to zero to pass a non-binding amendment to let veterans living within 40 miles of a VA clinic with limited medical services be eligible for Veterans Choice. Representative Walz says look for Congress to take quick action when it returns from recess in about a week and a half.