$16.3 billion spending bill helps vets see doctor

By Matt Porter | mporter@wcia.com

Published 08/01 2014 10:23PM

Updated 08/04 2014 12:11PM

ILLINOIS -- A new bill passed by Congress could make it easier for veterans to see a doctor. The $16.3 billion Veterans' Access to Care Act will let veterans go to local doctors instead of only providing care at VA hospitals.

John Peart may have arthritis in his knee, but the VA is asking him to travel dozens of miles just to find out.

"They gave me a choice either driving to Peoria or Danville to get an X-ray,” Peart said.

John Peart is one of thousands of veterans who drive more than 40 miles to see a VA doctor. Although he can get reimbursed for the miles he travels, he still loses money having to take a full day off work. The bill passed by Congress will allow Peart to get help at a local private healthcare facility. He likes the change, but thinks it could go further.

"They need to do it totally. They need to give a veteran a card and let him go to a local provider,” he said.

Two-thirds, or $10 billion, will go to help pay for private healthcare costs for veterans who can’t see a VA doctor for more than 30 days or if they live more than 40 miles away from the nearest facility.

Chris Studebaker, commander for AMVETS of Illinois, said downstate veterans sorely need local options.

"Central Illinois, we are the rural veterans that live 40-plus miles away from a VA facility," Studebaker said.

Unfortunately, he said it took tragedy for Congress to take the issue seriously.

"When that first veteran passed away out in Arizona for not getting the service which was required,” Studebaker said, “I think that shocked everybody."

$5 billion will be used to expand staff in hospitals and make repairs. The other $1 billion will go toward several other programs, including those involving sexual assault and traumatic brain injuries.

Ellen Lally, a veteran and a nurse, said making healthcare more accessible will make it more likely for vets to go to the doctor.

"They shouldn't have to travel, they shouldn't have to worry about it,” Lally said. “It should be available to them right in their own community."

The president is expected to sign the bill next week. Congress will pay for about one-third, or $5 billion, by capping controversial VA bonuses which led to abuse and reinstating a fee for the Home Loan Program for vets.

The other $10 billion is coming from emergency funds, so although some vets would like to see more money for private do ctors, paying for that would be a major roadblock.

The Danville VA hospital is also making preparations for the new bill. It serves many veterarns who travel great distances. They plan to help those who want to find providers who are closer to them. Leaders at the facility say some of the money will be used to help increase staff shortages.

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