Nearly 3 million veterans who use the VA health care system live in rural areas, which include more than 100,000 veterans who reside in highly rural areas. This trend is likely to continue since a large number of service members serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan are recruited from our rural communities.
“The enhanced contract care pilot program is a potential tool for expanding access to health care for our rural veterans in areas where the VA is unable to provide care,” said Chairman Michaud. “I am concerned that the early 2009 implementation date has come and gone and the program remains unavailable to eligible veterans. Today’s hearing provides an opportunity to learn more about the steps that the VA has taken to implement the program as well as the barriers that are slowing down the process of implementation.”
Members of the Subcommittee raised concerns that the program was too restrictive geographically and was intended to reach more veterans than VA had originally planned. Acting Director of the Office of Rural Health Patricia Vandenberg explained that VA could expand the target area of the pilot project but that change would result in a longer wait for veterans to receive the expanded care options. Ms. Vandenberg also discussed two specific challenges dealing with eligibility requirements. Language to address these issues and make it easier for the VA to implement the pilot program was included in S. 1963, an omnibus bill pending President Obama’s signature.
Bob Filner (D-CA), Chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said, “We need to balance the pressing health care needs of veterans in rural areas with the desire to develop an effective program that will best serve this veteran population in the coming years. I think a broad scope is essential as VA develops an established network of providers in rural areas.”