Veterans who need to see a doctor often have to travel long distances – 40 miles or more – to get to a Department of Veterans Affairs facility. So last year, after scandals involving long wait times for vets, Congress tried to make getting care easier.
The Veterans Choice Act gives veterans the option of using a doctor outside the VA system if VA facilities are more than 40 miles away, or there's more than a 30-day wait for an appointment.
While the rule seems simple, making it work hasn't been as easy. In Indiana, for example, veterans are still having to go far to get the care they need.
John Birdzell is a retired Army vet who volunteers to pick up other veterans at their homes and bring them to the Adam Benjamin Jr., VA Medical Clinic in Crown Point, Ind. On this cold, early morning, Birdzell waits in the facility's empty parking lot while 30 mile-an-hour wind gusts swirl the lake effect snow coming off of Lake Michigan.
"I guess I've driven in worse conditions," he says. "It just gets to be a challenge on days like this."
It sounds odd, but for 30 to 40 veterans a day, the clinic in Indiana is actually a bus terminal for vets to catch a shuttle to the Jesse Brown Medical Center in Chicago. It's more than 40 miles and at least an hour away – a lot longer depending on city traffic.
One of the people Birdzell was scheduled to take home called while she was still in Chicago. She needed an X-ray and was running late; she asked if he could pick her up on a later shuttle. Birdzell said yes, though it meant more than a 10-hour day for both of them.
"It's kind of mind boggling to me that they get on a bus to Chicago to have things such as blood work or simple X-rays done," he says.
There's a reason vets from Indiana go all the way to Chicago. They usually need to see specialists who aren't available at the clinic in Crown Point. And because the clinic itself is considered their nearest VA facility, they are disqualified because of the the 40-mile rule.
The Veterans Choice Act has only been operating since November, but it is struggling out of the gate. The non-profit organization Veterans of Foreign Wars, recently surveyed more than one thousand vets who thought they were eligible. But 80 percent of them reported the VA didn't offer them the option of going outside the VA system.
Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., has been pushing the VA to make it easier for veterans to go outside the VA for care.
"We owe it to veterans not to burden them further as far as this travel," he says. "But it has been long-standing and it remains to be addressed."
One thing he and dozens of other legislators want the VA to clarify: How does it measure 40 miles? Right now, the VA draws a straight line from the veteran's home to the nearest clinic. But Visclosky doesn't think that's realistic because no one drives in a straight line. He also wants the VA to take into account another factor that costs time: traffic.
On a recent day, the 40-plus mile drive back to Indiana through Chicago's midday congestion took about an hour and 10 minutes. Upon entering the Crown Point clinic's parking lot, not only was the bus stop visible, but so was Southlake Methodist, one of the area's largest hospitals.
The question now for the VA is whether to allow more veterans to trade their long bus ride for a trip to the local hospital.