US & World

VA changes policy following scathing 'Daily Show' segment

Gloria Hoeppner holds her VA choice card with husband Earl Kornbrekke at their home in Friday Harbor, Washington.
Gloria Hoeppner holds her VA choice card with husband Earl Kornbrekke at their home in Friday Harbor, Washington.
Patricia Murphy/KUOW

More veterans in rural areas will be able to go to a doctor near their home, thanks to a policy change made Tuesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The policy change follows a scathing report less than 24 hours before on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," which featured a story by KUOW’s Patricia Murphy.

Murphy's report focused on the Choice Program, which was signed into law last summer. The program was designed to give rural veterans access to local health care so they wouldn't have to travel for hours to the nearest VA facility. 

But the rule had its faults, as veterans quickly learned. To see a health care provider nearby, rules demanded that they live more than 40 miles from the nearest facility “as the crow flies.” That made seeing a doctor almost impossible for thousands of veterans who live farther than 40 miles away when roads are considered.

The VA said on Tuesday it would now measure the trip by driving miles, as calculated by sites like Google maps.

The rule change is expected to roughly double the number of eligible veterans.

Congress added the 40-mile rule to the Choice Program to keep costs down. VA Secretary Robert McDonald told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last month that relaxing the requirements would likely result in higher costs for the program.

But on Tuesday, McDonald said, “We appreciate the constructive feedback shared by veterans and our partners to help us improve service to veterans. 

In Washington state, Sen. Patty Murray had made sure that people who would have to take a ferry to the VA could get care, even if they lived just shy of 40 miles away. 

But Gloria Heoppner, 89, a Navy veteran who lives with her husband in the San Juan Islands, was told she didn’t qualify for care – even though she did. She lives 38 miles from the VA as the crow flies but would have to take a ferry from her home on Friday Harbor, a commute that can take hours.

This story is part of the American Homefront Project, a collaboration of KUOW, KPCC and KUNC. The project reports on military life and veterans issues, covering major policy issues at the Pentagon and Veterans Administration, as well as the everyday issues that service members and veterans experience.