Sen. Warner wants VA distance guidelines changed

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) – U.S. Senator Mark Warner is urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to consider geographical flexibility when determining who qualifies for the new Choice program.

The program, which began Nov. 5, allows veterans living more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility to receive care from private health providers. Currently, the VA interprets the 40-mile guideline with a straight line, rather than by the mileage of a realistic driving route.

“They call it a geodesic mapping system, as the crow flies, and I want to know when in the hell are we gonna grow wings so we can fly there,” Gabrielle Hanks said. “It makes no sense at all. None. And it shouldn’t make sense to anyone.”

Hanks, her husband Jon and their children live in Moon, Va. Jon is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Last week, 10 On Your Side told Sen. Warner about the Hanks, who live on the Middle Peninsula. The drive to the Hampton VA Medical Center from their home is 53 miles, but the couple learned recently they do not qualify for Choice care. They were told they don’t qualify because the VA measures a straight line from their home to the medical center, which passes over water, rather than the actual mileage they have to drive.

Gabrielle Hanks said the VA told her they live only 29 miles away, so they do not meet the 40-mile minimum.

The Choice care web page seems to allow for hardship situations with the following message:
(you would qualify if) You face a geographic challenge, such as extensive distances around water or other geologic formations, such as mountains, which presents a significant travel hardship.

But Gabrielle Hanks says the VA staff member did not mention that exception. “She kept telling me, ‘well, you’re only 29 miles away,’ and I said, ‘no, I promise you, I’ll give you $20. Drive up here, I’ll pay for your gas.'”

Sen. Warner wants the mileage policy changed to better reflect actual driving conditions and geography in Hampton Roads. Warner sent a letter Monday to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald.

Document: Sen. Warner letter to Secretary McDonald

In his letter to McDonald, Warner mentioned the Hanks case as symbolic of many veterans in Hampton Roads. 10 On Your Side checked, and Eastern Shore veterans would also have a longer drive to the Hampton VA than a straight line would suggest, because of the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnels.

In the letter, Warner states, “It is not uncommon to be located 40 miles from a veterans’ care facility, but required to drive substantially more miles to get there.”

Sen. Warner visited the Hampton VA Medical Center last Tuesday and expressed sympathy for the Hanks and veterans in similar situations: “You shouldn’t have to go to your U.S. senator to get the benefit that was passed in this legislation,” he said.

The Hanks moved to Moon from Kansas in 2013. They’ve been trying to find a neurologist to provide adequate care for Jon, who has PTSD and multiple sclerosis. When the law was passed in August creating the Choice program — and presumably opening up their options to civilian care — they were encouraged.

“We were literally marking the days on the calendar, marking them off, here it comes,” Gabrielle said.

They see the distance technicality as a setback, but not a defeat.

“I’m starting to feel like a whipped dog, and I said in the beginning that I won’t give up, I’m gonna fight, fight, fight and I will fight, fight, fight because I love my husband,” she said.

“We shouldn’t make services that people have earned protecting our nation so hard to obtain,” Warner said.

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