Accessing your VA healthcare benefits outside of the VA hospital/clinic system
You’ve experienced, or at least read about, the backlogs in getting healthcare at a VA facility. While the Veterans Affairs Department is working to improve its policies and practices, Congress stepped in and provided a way to get access to healthcare faster by allowing Veterans to see providers outside the VA system.
The Veterans Choice Program is part of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (VACAA). If you are eligible for, and enrolled in, the VA health care system, the Choice Program allows you to get healthcare from non-VA doctors. There is no impact to your existing VA health care or any other VA benefit. Access to outside services is limited to those Veterans who have been (or will be) waiting more than 30 days for VA medical care which has been approved by a VA physician, or live more than 40 miles away from a VA medical care facility, or face other excessive travel burdens.
You may have already received a Choice Card and eligibility information from the VA. If not, call the VA at 1-866-606-8198 or visit the Choice website: http://www.va.gov/opa/choiceact/ to check your eligibility. Once you’ve confirmed your eligibility, you can explore which doctors are participating in your area. You’ll also need to provide information about any other health insurance coverage you may have.
Sharing your medical records
If you do receive health care both within and outside of the VA system, you’ll want your providers on both sides to have access to your health records. It doesn’t help to play “I’ve got a secret” with your past medical history and current treatment plan. The VA offers a couple of different ways to share access to your records. Because there is, naturally, personal and health-related information being shared, there are numerous safeguards, required by federal regulation, which the VA must have in place to ensure privacy. These safeguards include verification of your identity and permissions to share. As such, the process for enrolling in these programs can seem very complicated and onerous...and they are! Understand that the intent is to safeguard the privacy and security of the information you decide to share.
The Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) allows certain providers with electronic access to the records the VA maintains on you. This makes it easier for your VA care team to extend other health services to you, such as the Choice Program. But which you need to authorize the VA to share this information, telling them what they can share and with whom. You can even share your health information with the Social Security Administration. To manage your authorizations and preferences, visit the VA’s eBenefits site at https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/homepage. You’ll need what’s called an authenticated eBenefits Premium account. Registering for a Premium account takes a bit of time and granting the account is not immediate. Remember, the VA needs to take steps to verify your identity.
Download Your Own VA medical records
The VA pioneered a new technology called Blue Button, that allows you to view, print, or download and store information from your own VA health record. By giving you direct access to your health record, VA Blue Button helps you better manage your health care needs and communicate with all your health care providers. Information available includes prescriptions, health history, and records of vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, temperature) taken at doctor’s visits. You also have the ability to supplement your record by entering your own information on emergency contacts, health care and insurance providers, over-the-counter medications, allergies, daily diet and physical activity, and more.
Once in your possession, you are free to share your health information with whomever you choose, such as an outside specialist or family doctor. Take care, however. You should try to safeguard your health information with the same care the VA does. Consider carefully who you share your Blue Button health records with.
To access your records via Blue Button, you’ll need an account with the VA’s MyHealtheVet website. If you’ve also received a Premium eBenefits account, you can access additional information such as VA doctor visit clinical notes, lab results, and future appointments.
Blue Button use is becoming more widespread, with other, nongovernment providers and insurers using the methodology to share information with their patients. As such, there are several smartphone apps available through from various non-VA sources. The VA does not endorse any of the applications, but they can provide a convenient and secure way to view your Blue Button information.
James Hamm, III
Colonel, United States Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)