The VA Mission Act of 2018 is designed to improve the lives of veterans all over the country but it may have a larger impact in rural Maine.
The state has nearly140,000 veterans, and the new rules are all about providing local healthcare options when there is a long drive or wait times for healthcare.
“It's trying to give those people who are on the outskirts the possibility to not have to travel all the way into Bangor or all the way to Togus,” said Craig Florey, of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 6 benefit protection chief. “They can choose to go to Northern Light, they can choose to these other hospitals, Mayo, for example towards Dover-Foxcroft.”
The VA Mission Act replaces the Veterans Choice program, created in 2014 in the wake of a scandal over falsified records and long wait times at VA hospitals all around the country.
Choice allowed veterans to choose a local doctor if they lived more than 40 miles away from a VA facility that provided the service. The new rules are less rigid and have a 30-minute drive threshold.
“The VA, how they figured their miles is by as a crow flies and as we know in Maine the roads are not as a crow flies,” Florey said. “It can take you 20 minutes to get five miles down the road in certain places.”
Wait times will also reduce from 30 days to 20 days for primary, mental health and non-institutional extended care services for those who live more than 30 minutes away from the VA.
“It's necessary, I would think,” said Joyce Thibodeau, a Winterport resident and former Togus employee.
“It's a good idea if they can go closer,” added veteran Bill Thibodeau, also of Winterport.
The Veterans Administration is also currently accepting comments on new rules to allow eligible veterans access to urgent care without prior approval from the VA. Written comments are being accepted through Regulations.gov until March 4.