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Mileage reimbursement rates for veterans visiting Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics will jump tomorrow to 28.5 cents per mile from 11 cents per mile the first increase in 30 years.
VA officials predict more than 1 million veterans will be affected by the increase.
Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., one of the sponsors of the legislation to increase the rate, said the timing couldn't be better.
"Many veterans in Colorado have difficulty obtaining care, and sometimes put off necessary treatment simply because they can't afford the gas to drive to a VA clinic," Salazar said. "This mileage reimbursement is a step forward in ensuring that our veterans can access the health care services they were promised."
VA said in a statement that it is increasing deductibles the cost a veteran must pay before reimbursement begins to match the new mileage rate.
Beginning Feb. 1, the new deductibles are $7.77 for a one-way trip and $15.54 for a round trip, with a maximum of $46.62 per calendar month.
"These deductibles can be waived if they cause a financial hardship to the veteran," the VA statement says.
"This is the first increase in travel reimbursements since 1979, when gas was 95 cents a gallon," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for the veterans budget. "This might not seem like a lot of money to a lot of people, but to rural veterans, it will be the difference between getting health care and going without."
By his estimate, a veteran traveling 400 miles round trip for medical care will now get $98.46 instead of $38.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vermont, who also helped push the legislation, said the increase is "long overdue," especially with gas prices topping $3 per gallon.
"The cost of travel should not discourage our veterans from seeking the health care benefits they have earned through their service," Sanders said. "In rural states like Vermont, this is an especially important issue."
VA Secretary Dr. James Peake, who had pledged during his Senate confirmation hearings late last year to quickly implement the increase if Congress passed it, said the move is "one more step by VA to help veterans access the health care they deserve."
"This increase helps veterans especially those living in rural areas offset some of the gasoline costs as they travel to VA's world-class health care," Peake said.