VA program improves access to care for rural vets

An expanded policy now allows millions of military veterans living in rural areas to seek treatment with a private doctor closer to home, in hopes of improving access to care and reforming the scandal-ridden Veterans Affairs (VA) Healthcare System, NPR reported.

Access Received Closer to Home, or ARCH, began as a trial program three years ago across five states, but the program expanded this summer for two years under the VA reform law. ARCH allows vets to seek out a private physician if they live far from a VA facility or can't get a VA appointment within 30 days, according to NPR.

The move will not only improve access, but means less travel costs, fewer days off work and less hassle to get to a crucial doctor's appointment. Instead of making a 400-mile round trip to the VA hospital in Aroostook County, Maine Army vet Randy Michaud now makes a 20-mile round trip to Cary Medical Center in nearby Caribou. Traveling to the closer medical center saves Michaud and his fellow vets a collective $600,000 a month in travel costs, said Cary Medical Center CEO Kris Doody, R.N.

The new VA law created a $10 billion private care initiative, which allows veterans to walk into clinics and bill the VA via a voucher, according to NPR. However the initiative will require extensive oversight, and the VA must pay the provider for services within 30 days, Roscoe Butler, deputy director for healthcare at the American Legion and retired director of the VA medical center in Minneapolis, told NPR.

Meanwhile, other VA initiatives improve access to care for vets in rural areas. The VA provided remote care to more than 690,000 veterans during fiscal year 2014, with 55 percent of those vets located in rural settings, FierceHealthIT reported. "We are exploring how we can more efficiently and effectively deliver healthcare services to better serve our veterans and improve their lives," said VA Secretary Robert McDonald. "Telehealth is one of those areas we have identified for growth."

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