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Veterans Choice Cards are in the mail today. So what are they?

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday will begin issuing Veterans Choice Cards for former troops who have struggled to access care at the agency’s medical centers. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
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The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday issued its first round of Choice Cards to former troops struggling to access care at VA medical centers.

So what are these things, and what do they do?

Choice Cards are a temporary benefit stemming from the VA’s record-keeping scandal, which involved nationwide coverups of treatment delays at the agency’s medical centers. The items allow eligible veterans to obtain care outside the VA hospital network if they have waited too long for an appointment or live far away from the nearest agency clinic.

The government picks up the tab, with Congress allocating $10 billion for that purpose earlier this year in response to the scandal. But former service members who have experienced long delays will have to wait several more weeks their cards are mailed, since the VA is implementing the program in phases.

The department mailed the first round on Wednesday for veterans who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA health center. Phase two is scheduled to begin by Nov. 17, with the agency sending cards to veterans who have waited more than 30 days beyond their preferred date, or a date that a doctor has determined to be medically necessary.

The first two rounds will involve about 700,000 former troops. The VA plans to issue more cards in December to 8 million veterans enrolled in the agency’s health network, in case they qualify to use them in the future.

The program came about through the Veterans Access, Choice and Acountability Act, which President Obama signed into law exactly three months ago. Congress crafted the legislation to help deal with the root causes of the record-keeping scandal, which was partly due to unrealistic scheduling expectations, according to government reviews of the matter.

The law required the VA to issue the Choice Cards no later than Thursday, but the agency officials have said that meeting the goal would have overwhelmed the program and potentially led to further problems.

Between June and October, the VA authorized more than 1 million veterans to receive care at non-agency medical centers through previously existing programs, providing relief for some of the former service members who have experienced delays.

The veterans bill included other provisions to help the VA overcome its scheduling problems, such as funding to expand capacity by leasing 27 new facilities. It also requires the agency to post appointment data publicly at its medical centers and gives the department greater authority to fire senior executives for wrongdoing and performance issues.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the first round of Veterans Choice Cards were issued on Thursday instead of Wednesday.