At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we have one of the most noble and inspiring missions in government. I accepted this job and joined this mission to better serve you — our veterans — and improve the delivery of the care and benefits you have earned. It is our privilege to serve you, and I have made clear that as we move forward as a department, we will judge the success of all our efforts against a single metric — the outcomes we provide for veterans.
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, enacted less than three months ago, goes a long way toward enabling the VA to meet the demand for veterans’ health care in the short-term. The VA has put considerable focus and attention on ensuring the law is implemented seamlessly — without confusion and without creating hardships for veterans. This legislation provides authorities with funding and other tools to better serve veterans here and now. We are appreciative of this temporary measure to improve access while we build capacity within the VA system to better serve those who rely on us for care.
From June 1 to Sept. 30, the VA completed more than 19 million veteran appointments in our facilities and made nearly 1.1 million authorizations for veterans to receive care in the private sector and other non-VA health-care facilities — a 46.6-percent increase over the same period in 2013. This all was done under existing programs prior to the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, and it sets the stage for strengthening existing partnerships between the VA and the private sector. We have much we can share with one another to the benefit of veterans.
The VA has signed contracts with two private health-care companies to help the VA administer the Veterans Choice Program under VACAA. The Choice Program is a new, temporary benefit allowing some veterans to receive health care in their communities rather than waiting for a VA appointment or traveling to a VA facility. It does not impact your existing VA health care or any other VA benefit you may be receiving. We implemented this benefit on Nov. 5, as required by law. A call center now is operational to answer veterans’ questions and verify their eligibility for this program.
As part of this new program, we are issuing a Veterans Choice card to every veteran who potentially is eligible for the new, temporary health benefit. The card allows veterans to elect to receive care outside of the VA when they qualify for the new program based on the distance of their residence from a VA care facility, or when wait times for VA health care exceed the standards established in law. The Choice card does not replace the identification card veterans already use to access other VA benefits, so they should not throw away that identification card.
The Choice card will be issued in three phases. The first group of Choice cards, along with a letter explaining eligibility for this program, currently is being sent to veterans who may live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The next group of cards and letters will be sent shortly thereafter to those veterans who currently are waiting for an appointment longer than 30 days from their preferred date or the date determined to be medically necessary by their physician.
The final group of Choice cards and letters will be sent between December 2014 and January 2015 to the remaining veterans enrolled for VA health care who may be eligible for the Choice program in the future.
We continue to work with our partners — Congress, veterans-service organizations and others — to get the information about this health program out to veterans in as many ways as possible. Go to www.va.gov/opa/choiceact to find information on the choice program’s eligibility. We will work with our partners to keep veterans and their families informed as we improve our delivery of high-quality, timely care.
Thank you for your service and sacrifice.