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Future Uncertain For VA Rural Health Pilot Program

TOPEKA — Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pilot program offering timely, quality health care to rural veterans is being allowed to expire in a few months, even as major legislation moves through both houses of Congress that would have similar goals as the pilot program.

The pilot program is called Access Received Closer to Home, or ARCH. It’s offered at five sites — Pratt, Kansas; Caribou, Maine; Farmville, Virginia; Flagstaff, Arizona, and Billings and Anaconda, Montana. The program allows veterans to get health services from community providers if they live at least one hour from a VA health facility.

Five senators sent a letter to the VA secretary, asking why the program is ending. The letter reads, in part: “For reasons we do not understand, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is choosing — at VHA’s own initiative — to end this successful program despite the more than 90 percent satisfaction rate communicated by veterans. … All along, the VHA gave us the impression that they were waiting on analysis about the success of ARCH to inform their decision about extending the program — this is a misleading storyline at best. We are deeply disappointed by this breach of trust because those who suffer from this recklessness are veterans.”

In addition to Moran, the letter to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson is signed by fellow Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Angus King, I-Maine, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and John McCain, R-Ariz.

While VA officials have told members of Congress that no decision has been made on whether to let ARCH expire, Moran said veterans and VA employees in Kansas have told him that the national program director for ARCH directed the five pilot sites several months ago to begin contacting veterans who participate in ARCH to let them know the program would be ending. Moran suspects the VA is motivated by financial concerns.

“If they pay for services outside the VA, it’s less money that they’ve had to use within the VA, and of course the focus ought to be on the quality of service and the timely access to care that this kind of program can provide,” Moran said.

Moran said bipartisan legislation based on the ARCH program is moving through Congress, a response to the VA waiting times scandal. That legislation offers some veterans the opportunity to seek care outside of the VA system. It would cover some of the same services vets have been receiving under ARCH, but Moran and the other senators are concerned that ARCH vets could see a lapse in care if the VA doesn’t extend the pilot program. He’s calling on Gibson to halt plans to dismantle the program.

“I believe the VHA intentionally misled my colleagues and I who have sought answers from the VA for months regarding the potential extension of the program,” Moran said in a news release.

At a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing  in Washington, Wednesday, Philip Matkovsky, an assistant deputy under secretary for the VA, said that “technically speaking, we have the authorities to cover” continuing the ARCH program.  He pointed out that ARCH was a contract with a one-year term and two optional years. The second of those optional years expires Sept. 30. “Typically, unless a contracting officer can determine a compelling reason to extend that, and I’m not a contracting officer, we let contracts expire,” Matkovsky said.

A spokesman for the VA said that the department has Moran’s letter and will provide an official response.