Gazette opinion: Montana veterans deserve better choices

by Billings Gazette

The Veterans Choice Act was created to provide U.S. veterans with the choice of getting care closer to home when VA care was more than 40 miles or 30 days away. The new program has far to go before it keeps that promise.

In Billings on Tuesday for a small business workshop, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester heard from local veterans who had been referred by Veterans Affairs to Sheridan, Wyo., for services available in Billings hospitals. One woman told of being sent to Sheridan for an MRI scan.

“That’s not the way the Veterans Choice Act is supposed to work,” Tester said after the workshop at Montana State University Billings. “It’s been a rocky rollout. The intent is to get veterans timely care close to home.”

Waiting too long
According to information from Tester’s office, last week in Montana there were 5,000 unscheduled appointments through Veterans Choice, and 2,600 of those requests were older than 90 days.

Another problem is lack of timely reimbursement to private sector providers who care for veterans in the choice program, Tester said.

A member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester has directed his staff to hold meetings around Montana to ask veterans how the choice program is going. The meetings are continuing, but Tester said Tuesday that it’s clear Congress must cut red tape and that VA middle management in Helena and Denver must do a better job of implementation.

“We appropriated a lot of money to the VA,” he said. “Money is not their problem. We don’t have enough doctors, we don’t have enough nurses. We don’t have enough administrative personnel.”

A new law creating additional primary care and psychiatric residency slots still awaits funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, he said.

VA Montana continues to recruit for vacancies. This week, its 19 health professional job postings included nurses, psychiatrists, primary care doctors, respiratory therapists and physician assistants.

Legislation stalls
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has passed several bills that Tester supports, but none have been brought to the Senate floor. Stalled committee bills include measures introduced by senators from both parties.

Last July, the committee approved legislation concerning veterans’ compensation cost of living adjustments, access to immunizations and chiropractic care, provisions to expedite the veterans’ appeal process, to address the claims backlog, to require reporting of PTSD related to military sexual trauma, to forbid the VA secretary from giving bonuses to employees found to have performed poorly, and to improve women’s health services. Seven months later, no further action has been taken.

In early December, the Senate committee passed Senate Bill 290 to increase VA accountability with increased whistle blower protection and other reforms. On the same day, the committee approved SB 425, the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program Reauthorization introduced by Tester and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. That bill includes provisions to increase physician assistant pay, expand eligibility for caregiver support services, expedite survivor and funeral benefits and establish a VA office of patient advocacy. Neither of those bills has seen Senate action.

Asked about prospects for making needed changes in laws affecting U.S. veterans this election year, Tester said it depends on what the Senate leadership does. He praised Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., but pointed out that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., hasn’t brought committee bills to the floor.

The VA’s challenges remain complex and widespread. It’s going to take acts of Congress, significant reform of the department’s clunky processes and the constant pressure of veterans and their advocates to fix what ails the VA. Tester needs to keep speaking up for veterans. The House and Senate must find common ground this election year to keep moving forward to improve services to U.S. veterans.