Sgt. 1st Class Erin Smith

Sgt. 1st Class Erin Smith, left, of the Army Idaho National Guard, provides remarks to a crowd of family and Guard members after receiving the Spirit of Freedom Award from Sen. Mike Crapo August 25, 2016, at Gowen Field, Idaho. According to Crapo’s office, the Spirit of Freedom Award is reserved for those who have demonstrated the spirit, tenacity and sense of self-sacrifice that are integral to Idaho character.

TWIN FALLS — U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo has introduced a veterans’ health care reform bill that, he says, would make it easier for veterans to access health care.

The “Improving Veterans Care in the Community Act” would consolidate eight existing non-Veterans Administration health care programs that some veterans use into one, and expand the circumstances under which some veterans would be allowed to seek care through the Veterans Choice Program, which was created in 2014 when manipulation of wait times at some VA hospitals became a national scandal.

Currently, veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility are allowed to schedule private care. Crapo’s bill would keep that rule but add that, if the specialized medical service a veteran needs isn’t available at the facility within 40 miles of them, they can seek private care. The bill also says that veterans who would have to wait more than 30 days for a VA facility can seek private care. The bill would require the Government Accounting Office and an independent commission to study veterans’ services and report back to Congress.

Crapo has been interested in veterans’ health care and in reforming the Veterans Choice Program for a while, surveying Idaho veterans in 2014 and again in 2015 to get their views on the VA’s services. Crapo said Monday that many veterans have said they are unhappy with the current Veterans Choice Program, and that his bill reflects the feedback he has gotten.

“Literally, I believe, this legislation came from the Idaho veterans as to what they’re saying they need,” Crapo said.

Crapo stressed that the bill doesn’t privatize the VA, an idea which, he said, most of the veterans he has heard back from have opposed.

“It continues to support a VA-centric health-care system,” he said.

The bill was introduced on Sept. 27 and referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Crapo said he is working on getting co-sponsors and a companion House bill, and he thinks there could be some action on the issue during Congress’s lame-duck session after the November elections. If not, he said he would push it early in 2017.

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