WASHINGTON – The bill signed into law by President Barack Obama Aug. 7 appropriated $16.3 billion for the Veterans Affairs Department, but it may not benefit any Cape May County veterans.
The law permits veterans living farther than 40 miles from a VA hospital (the closest to Cape May County is Wilmington, Dela.) or clinic (the closest are in Cape May and Northfield) to go to a doctor of their choosing at VA cost. Due to the proximity of those clinics, most veterans will likely not gain from the law.
A bill, offered in May by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-1st) would go farther “in terms of allowing veterans to choose their doctor at VA cost. The congressman believes this (Aug. 7 law) is a good first step, but that we should move further towards his proposal, the "Veterans Health ID Act," to better serve South Jersey veterans,” stated Jason Galanes, LoBiondo’s deputy chief of staff and spokesperson.
The law appropriates $10 billion to allow veterans to seek treatment at non-VA facilities if they live over 40 miles from a VA facility, or if they are unable to secure a doctor’s appointment within 30 days.
The funding also provides for VA to hire more physicians, mental health counselors and nurses. Unknown at the present is how long the funding will last before the VA must seek more aid from Congress.
Any county veteran who believes themselves to be in a hardship situation for care may have an avenue available.
According to Galanes, “There is a "hardship clause" that existed beforehand (but not advertised by the VA) that allows veterans to get a waiver to see doctors closer to their residence should there be a difficulty in traveling to a VA facility. Cape May County veterans who feel that it is a hardship to receive VA care in Wilmington should contact the congressman's office for assistance in securing a "hardship waiver." Mike Francis is the congressman's veterans liaison in the Mays Landing office. 609-625-5008.”
A key point in the LoBiondo bill would require VA to establish a pilot program in each of the 23 Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) that grants an eligible veteran a “unique identification card” that allows for medical care at non-VA facilities at the VA’s expense.
Furthermore, LoBiondo’s legislation specifically states that New Jersey’s Second Congressional District will be one of the pilot programs. South Jersey is part of VISN 4. The pilot programs would need to be established and operating within one year of LoBiondo’s bill being signed into law.
The president signed the bill into law at Fort Belvoir, Va.