UPDATE: Help veterans access timely, quality care

December 11, 2015
VA makes it easier for veterans to access care through ‘Choice’ program.

Revised eligibility requirements ensure veterans' access to care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) system if necessary, offering doctors of optometry a greater opportunity to provide aid.

Known as the Veterans Choice Program, this VA initiative permits the agency to pay for veterans' care from participating non-VA providers should the veteran face barriers to timely, traditional VA care. And in a final rule handed down by the agency on Dec. 1, 2015, the VA made it even easier for veterans to qualify.

Previously, veterans only were eligible for the Choice Program if they were enrolled in the VA system by August 2014 or as combat veterans, experiencing unusual or excessive burden in accessing care, or facing a 40-mile or longer driving distance. However, under this new final rule, a veteran is eligible if he or she is enrolled in the VA health care system and meets one of the following criteria:

  • Face a 30-day or longer wait period for an appointment at the veteran's local VA medical facility;
  • Must drive more than 40 miles from the closest VA medical facility with a full-time primary care physician;
  • Must travel by air, boat or ferry to nearest VA medical facility;
  • Face an unusual or excessive burden in traveling to the nearest VA medical facility, e.g., geographic challenges, environmental factors, medical condition, or the nature or frequency of care; and,
  • Lives in a state or territory without a full-service VA medical facility, such as Alaska, Hawaii or New Hampshire.

Charles Sikes, O.D., immediate past president of the North Carolina State Optometric Society, has advocated and participated in the program since its creation in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. He continues to push for measures that make the program more accessible, but already sees it making a difference in veterans' lives.

"Their appreciation is very rewarding; to feel like you're providing such a far-reaching benefit to our veterans is tremendously fulfilling in itself," Dr. Sikes said.

How to deliver care to veterans

Eye care clinics staffed by VA doctors of optometry, including residents, are among the busiest primary care settings in the veteran's health care system. Last year alone, more than 1.2 million veterans received comprehensive eye exams and other essential care through VA doctors of optometry.

Going forward, the workload for VA doctors of optometry is only expected to rise. Serious eye trauma is the second most common injury among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 16% of all wounded service members experiencing problems ranging from distorted vision to blindness.

The VA offers information for how  non-VA doctors can get involved, and doctors can also  check their eligibility.

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