Congress extends Veterans Choice benefits, 140,000 Alabamians affected

ATHENS, Ala. - We have what some are hailing as great news for Alabama's veterans. Congress Wednesday night voted to extend the program that allows veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, to seek medical treatment at a hospital or doctor of their choosing. The move affects roughly 140,000 Alabama veterans, but will it last?

Jerry Crabtree recalls his army days. “They sent me to Northern Germany to a nuclear weapons compound. It was guarded by the British on the perimeter and the Americans guarded the inside,” Jerry explained.

Before he retired he saw many parts of the world and then came home to join the Athens Police Department. And so the news that Congress has extended the Veterans Affairs Choice Program came as good news.

“America asks its young men and women to go fight its wars and then sometimes, I think America, the politicians, fail the veterans. Especially the wounded, the maimed, the injured veterans when they come back from the war zones. For a veteran to have to wait 3 to 6 months to see a doctor, that's absolutely unacceptable,” Jerry says.

The Veterans Affairs Choice Program was intended to eliminate the wait time for a veteran to get medical help, but it is limited to veterans who live 40 miles or more from a VA facility. And even though new VA facilities are being opened, like the new one in Huntsville, there are still more than 140,000 Alabama veterans who qualified for the program. The program was due to expire in August but has been extended until funding already allotted for the program is exhausted.

Representative Bradley Byrne (R-AL) wants to extend the coverage even further, not just for the veterans who live in rural areas but for all veterans regardless of how far they live from a VA center. But not everyone thinks it's such a great idea. We spoke with one medical provider today who says they have a hard enough time getting paid by Medicare and Medicaid. He says can you imagine the time and red tape that would be involved in trying to get a check from the VA?

Our news partner al.com reports veterans have complained that some doctors and medical facilities don't want them as patients because the VA bureaucracy had proven too difficult to navigate for payment. Funding for the program is expected to run out late this year and there's no word on whether it will be extended.