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Op-Ed: Will The VA Ever Fix Its Travel Reimbursement Program?

January 24, 2017

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Approximately 39 years ago (1978), Congress passed a piece of legislation which set forth the rules for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Beneficiary Travel Reimbursement Program.

So stingy and uncaring was that era’s Congress that they decided to severely reduce the cost of that program. The mileage rate for reimbursement was set at a mere eleven cents (.11) per mile. Congress also decided to include the requirement for a “deductible” which had to be satisfied before eligible VA patients would receive a penny of reimbursement for their travel expenses. The deductible was set at $3.00 per one-way trip ($6.00 per round-trip) with a maximum of $18.00 per month (three round-trip visits to the Clinic and/or hospital). Eligible patients who traveled four or more times in the same calendar month would receive the full 11 cents per mile (without a deductible). VA patients are the only people in the Nation required to satisfy a deductible before receiving travel reimbursements. This is blatantly unfair to disabled Veterans.

The Secretary of the VA was given discretionary authority to periodically increase the mileage rate, but only if funds earmarked for the general health care of VA patients were not used. Since all the funds provided in their budget were earmarked for health care, an increase in the mileage rate would never be possible, and Congress was aware of this.

It was not until former Secretary Eric Shinseki engineered a huge increase in VA’s budget in the year 2009 that the VA could increase its mileage rate to match that of the General Services Administration (GSA). It should be noted that periodic increases to VA’s mileage rate have not occurred since the increase of 2009, while the rest of the country enjoyed the increases in the GSA rate.

Since many of our needy VA patients needed to receive their travel reimbursements ASAP, they were paid in cash on the same day of their appointments. However, when a couple dishonest Veterans made fraudulent travel reimbursement claims, the Treasury Department demanded that all travel reimbursements would be paid through the Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) system.

The EFT system for paying VA patients travel reimbursements was mired in such a huge backlog, patients were not getting paid until as long as 26 weeks after their appointments. Those guilty of filing fraudulent claims should have been punished, of course; but, not all VA patients.

Efforts over the past eight years to get the inequities of the VA Beneficiary Travel Reimbursement Program corrected have failed. A bill to fix these inequities remains dormant in the “pending” baskets of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Congressman Tim Walz. Until offsetting funds can be identified (which would cover the cost of this bill), VA patients will probably just have to “cool their heels,” as usual!

Affected Veterans are in dire need of a fair VA Travel Reimbursement Program. Veterans waited more than 30 years to see the first increase in the VA’s mileage rate. Will the VA Secretary and the Congress wait another 30-40 years before VA patients will receive the same travel rate as the rest of the Nation?

The GSA rate for 2017 dropped a bit again this year, to .535 cents per mile. That’s still .115 cents per mile more than VA patients receive. The VA Secretary is still unable to use the discretionary authority increasing the mileage rate whenever the GSA rate changes. This is, of course, quite unfair to VA patients who have been singled-out for the deductible, and because the Secretary is unable to use his discretionary authority to increase the VA’s rate.

Veterans were forced to wait more than a century before a partial “concurrent receipt” bill was passed. Passage of that bill permitted Veterans rated at least 50% disabled to receive their earned retirement pay and their awarded VA disability compensation, concurrently.

Perhaps the new VA Secretary will be able to obtain an increase in the VA budget, allowing the current “deductible” to be canceled and allow the VA Secretary to periodically increase its reimbursement rate if and when the GSA increases the National rate? Serious consideration should also be given to re-establish the practice of paying eligible VA patients travel reimbursements, in cash, on the same day as their VA appointments.

Some needy patients need the reimbursement just to make the return trip back to their homes.

Brooks Outland is a Korean and Vietnam war veteran.He volunteered to serve in Vietnam because he was keen to help the people of South Vietnam keep their freedom and their country from communist takeover by the North. After retiring Brooks and his wife spent eight years volunteering aboard his old battleship, USS Missouri (BB-63), before returning to the mainland in Arkansas in 2015.