A measure recently cosponsored by Rep. Lois Capps seeks to close a loophole in the Veterans Affairs (VA) reform bill signed into law last August following last year’s nationwide scandal that exposed long wait times for veterans seeking medical care.
Among a number of changes, the $16.3 billion law established a “choice card” program, allowing veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility or waiting more than 30 days for care the opportunity to see a private doctor at the government’s expense. The program has not been without flaws, as media reports continue to spread stories about confusion since the agency started mailing out the cards last November.
But in smaller regions such as Santa Barbara, the problem for veterans is not that they live more than 40 miles from a facility, but that the local clinics may not offer services they need such as surgical procedures, dental work, or chemotherapy treatment. Many of the roughly 2,600 veterans who access the Santa Barbara VA clinic and the 6,200 or so who use the Santa Maria one must trek to the West Los Angeles VA Hospital for certain procedures.
“It’s happening all of the time,” said 76-year-old Vietnam era veteran Lou Testa, who contacted Capps’s office about the issue. “There are four hospitals between L.A. and San Diego,” he added. “They get great service.” Testa, who lives in Solvang, has made the trip twice to Los Angeles, spending about 12 hours on a bus for a 30-minute appointment so a doctor could examine his hand.
Testa and others have spoken highly of the doctors Santa Barbara’s two VA clinics. “We have good service for what they do. The only problem we have is the hospital.” The change would mean more business for private hospitals, and preliminary efforts to gauge their support have been favorable, Testa said. “This would be something to enhance the VA. Let’s take care of this small problem,” he added.
Though dozens of Congressmembers have supported the bill, it remains to be seen how the measure will fare in Washington. Capps said, “Our veterans have sacrificed so much for our country, and we need to ensure that we keep our promise to them throughout their life….[T]his bill will go a long way to making sure veterans – especially the elderly and disabled – have that easier access to the care they need.”