More Veterans Can Get Cancer Treatment Closer to Home as VA Expands 'Close to Me' Program

VA Secretary Denis McDonough visits VA Dubuque Clinic\
VA Secretary Denis McDonough visits VA Dubuque Clinic and the Iowa City Health Care System, Nov. 2, 2023. (VA photo)

More than 9,000 veterans will have access to advanced oncology treatment and monitoring in locations closer to their homes under an expansion of the Department of Veterans Affairs' Close to Me cancer care program, according to VA officials.

In the program, VA providers travel to community-based outpatient clinics to provide diagnostics, treatment and services, rather than the veteran having to travel to a VA medical center.

Since the start of Close to Me in 2021, roughly 500 veterans have been treated for cancer in 20 locations. The expansion, announced last week, will benefit thousands more veterans at 30 additional locales by October 2025 while also saving the VA costs, according to Dr. Michael Kelley, the VA's executive director for oncology.

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Kelley said the program keeps veterans and their caregivers from having to travel long distances and be away from home for extended periods. He also noted that, given that the VA can negotiate drug costs, the department pays on average one-third less for oncology medications and has saved $1.9 million since introducing it at pilot sites.

"Innovative programs like this allow us to leverage our resources better to meet the veterans' needs, which are really at the heart of this effort," Kelley said during a press conference April 25.

According to the VA, the program has had no reported medical emergencies during treatment and has a 99% treatment adherence rate, meaning that nearly all who are treated complete their recommended care.

"We want veterans to have easy access to the care they need, where they need it," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. "This expansion will provide veterans with a VA care option that delivers truly personalized, high-quality, integrated cancer care closer to where they live."

To date, the department has managed the program with two nurses per site who provide infusion medications and surveillance. The expanded program will add physicians to each site to enable diagnosis and treatment, Kelley said.

Following a record hiring initiative in 2023, the VA said earlier this year that it would cut roughly 10,000 full-time positions from medical sites -- largely supervisory and support staff.

Kelley said there are "staffing concerns" with the program, but the VA hopes to make sure that the new positions are permanent full-time jobs.

"So, not temporary, and it's not overtime," Kelley said.

VA officials said veterans should contact their providers to learn more about cancer care at the VA and the program. Kelley urged veterans to consider getting their oncology care through the department because the VA offers "comprehensive and just the highest quality" care.

"We're not just doing one part of the care. We are taking care of the entire patient," Kelley said.

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