Here’s what the VA Mission Act means for veterans

Matt Saintsing
June 07, 2018 - 1:23 pm

Photo by Yuri Gripas/Sipa USA

Its official, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Wednesday that will greatly expand veterans’ access to private healthcare, even as funding for the package remains uncertain.

The $52 billion VA Mission Act paves the way for a major overhaul of how the Department of Veterans Affairs provides access for veterans to receive care in the private sector, and to have the VA pick up the bill.

"What a beautiful word that is — choice — and freedom to our amazing veterans," Trump said at the signing ceremony, Wednesday. "All during the campaign I'd go out and say, 'why can't they just go see a doctor instead of standing in line for weeks and weeks and weeks?' Now they can go see a doctor."

The VA Mission Act is a three-way compromise between the Trump administration, Congress, and vets themselves.

Advocates view the law as a win as it doesn’t allow for unfettered choice, something that could potentially weaken the VA. But it does allow each veteran to be treated as individuals, and not just like a block of patients.

It could take up to a year for all the regulations and funding to be sorted out, but it does a few things that veterans will start noticing immediately.

What it does right away, is ditch the so-called 40-mile, 30-day rule under the Choice program, which previously allowed vets to go to a private doctor in their community when they couldn’t get an appointment at a VA clinic within 30 days, or if they lived more than a 40-mile drive from a VA medical facility.

So, if a doctor and veteran agree it’s in the best interest of the veteran to get care outside of the VA, they can do so, regardless of any wait time or distance requirement.

Another key component to the law that vets will start noticing immediately is that it vastly expands caregiver benefits for pre-9/11 veterans. Up until Wednesday, vets who were injured in earlier conflicts, like the Vietnam War, were not eligible to receive caregiver funding from the VA.

But with the president’s signature, that’s now been changed.

It also creates a framework for the VA to create a commission by 2021 to review every piece of real estate the VA has, and to determine which facilities are needed.

As lawmakers and veterans’ organizations praised the newly minted law, some major details will have to be worked through by the department, including drawing up regulations that, according to advocates, could take up to a year or more to fully implement.

“We expect this to take about a year for Congress to come up with all the regulations, and to figure out where the money is going to come from,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director for AMVETS.

As it stands now, the $52 billion in funding would come from new appropriations, which means veterans would continue to enjoy the benefits they have earned without seeing any cuts.

But the White House has been actively lobbying Republicans on Capitol Hill to vote that down, and instead, wants Congress to pay for the new benefits by cutting spending in other areas.

Chenelly added that some are worried that the VA could be “cannibalized” to pay for the changes, something that AMVETS “will be watching very closely.”

VA hospitals have the luxury of knowing what their funding will be one year in advance, something unique when it comes to government funding. That’s a boon for veterans who want stable, predictable care, and it ensures Congress can’t use VA healthcare as a political football.

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