As many of our nation’s veterans know all too well, systematic problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continue to plague the agency. As a result, veterans have become disillusioned due to long wait times or higher out-of-pocket expenses for care they have been promised. As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and coming from South Dakota, where we have a very high percentage of veterans, fixing these problems and putting care of veterans first remains our top priority.
The last major legislative overhaul of the VA was the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, commonly referred to as the Choice Act. Signed into law just before I was sworn into office, the intent of Choice is to provide relief to those facing long appointment wait times and those who live far from VA facilities. It authorizes veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or are forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment the opportunity to receive private care at non-VA facilities. Because we are a large, rural state, veterans in South Dakota are disproportionately compelled to use the Choice Act to receive care at private facilities. Unfortunately, it also means they are disproportionately hurt by the law’s shortcomings. In fact, it is the number one issue my constituent service representatives deal with on a day-to-day basis.
When a veteran receives care at a VA facility, the VA is responsible for the cost of the services it provides. This is true even when a veteran owns a private health insurance plan. However, under the Choice Act, veterans with private health insurance plans who seek care in the private sector for non-service-connected disabilities are being forced to pay higher out-of-pocket costs. Because current law states the VA is only “secondarily responsible” for paying for these services under Choice, veterans who use the program have to pay deductibles in accordance with their private plans. Depending on the type of service and plan, these deductibles can be quite costly. They would not have to pay these deductibles if they were at a VA facility. When combined with other frustrating aspects of the program, this has forced veterans to give up on the Choice Act completely and seek alternative care.