After years of unnecessary travel for health care, military veterans living in the Virgin Islands will have access to physicians and hospitals within the territory, thanks to the Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2015.
The new law will allow veterans who must drive more than 40 miles to a Veterans Affairs clinic or are unable to get an appointment in 30 days at the clinic to now seek care from non-VA medical facilities in their communities.
According to Axel Roman, VA chief of community relations for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the wait time at the St. Croix clinic is five days and only one day on St. Thomas. But Virgin Island service veterans still will be required to use the local VA clinics because they are within 40 miles.
Roman said the new version of the law will go into effect after the federal agency publishes an interim final rulemaking in the Federal Register. Veterans will be notified by mail if their eligibility changes, Roman said.
Veterans still will be required to seek basic services at VA clinics on St. Croix and St. Thomas. Currently primary and preventative health care, podiatry, phlebotomy and chronic care services, social services, EKG and some telemedicine services are available. Once a month, a gynecologist, physical therapist and a psychiatrist visit the Virgin Islands VA clinics to see patients.
According to Roman, there are 812 veterans “actively” using the VA clinic on St. Croix and 807 from St. Thomas and St. John. In 2014, there were almost 3,000 clinic visits at each facility.
Many of V.I. veterans travel to Puerto Rico at one time or another for surgery or hospitalization. Although the VA usually covers airfare, shuttle service and hotel accommodations, most people prefer oncology treatments, heart surgery and gastroenterology services closer to home. Once the new rule is in place, veterans will be able to access those specialized services in the territory.
“This is a step in the right direction in fixing a rule that presents a challenge for so many of our veterans, particularly those here in the Virgin Islands, from having easy access to care,” said Delegate Stacey Plaskett in a news release.
“Under this proposed fix, Virgin Island veterans would be able to qualify for and use their ‘Choice Cards’ at local medical facilities to access services that they would otherwise have to travel to Puerto Rico to receive,” Plaskett said.
According to Plaskett, H.R. 572, or the Veterans Access to Community Care act of 2015 will almost double the number of veterans who qualify for the program – originally the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.