Gazette opinion: Montana veterans deserve better care choices

by Billings Gazette

The Veterans Choice Act is a poor choice. Montana veterans and others across the nation actually are waiting longer for appointments under Choice Act provisions than they would in the Veterans Affairs clinics.

Recently in Montana, there were 5,000 Veterans Choice appointments requested but unscheduled, and 2,600 of those requests were older than 90 days, according to Sen. Jon Tester’s office. The private administrators VA selected to operate the program have failed to deliver timely appointments. HealthNet is the contractor hired to serve Montana and some other states.

Veterans issues used to account for 30 percent of Tester’s constituent services. Since the Choice Act started, the veterans issues have increased to 50 percent of the staff’s caseload.

“This is an epidemic within the care system,” Tester told The Gazette on Monday.

Veterans report generally being pleased with care received at Fort Harrison and in Montana VA outreach clinics, when they have need staff and when they can get into VA care, Tester said. It’s the waiting that frustrates patients.

“HealthNet is taking four to seven weeks to get an appointment; it’s not working,” Tester said. “It just compounded the problem.”

How did this company get the contract? “They were the only ones that bid.”
Legislation languishes

Complaints also have piled up from private community health care providers who have waited six months for HealthNet to pay them for veterans’ care. Billings Clinic and at least 20 other Montana providers have dropped out of the Choice program, according to Tester’s staff.

On a recent visit to Billings, Tester complained that legislation approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee languishes months later because leadership hasn’t brought it to the full Senate for a vote. Nevertheless, last week Tester introduced a new bill, one designed to fix the problems with the Choice Act that are denying Montana veterans the care the law was intended to provide.

Tester proposed to allow VA the flexibility to cut out the private Choice Act contractor. He would allow VA clinics and hospitals to refer veterans directly to community care when that care is available quicker and closer to home than what is available in the VA system. Tester would change the Choice Act to allow VA to pay for community fee-for-service referrals from Choice funds.

Tester also proposed consolidating the VA’s seven community care programs into one.

Last week, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee aired complaints about the Choice Act.

“The Choice program is not working the way that anyone wanted,” Dr. David Shulkin, VA undersecretary for health, told the senators. He acknowledged that the third-party administrators are too slow and said VA is trying to fix the problems.

However, Congress created the Choice program, and that’s where most of the fixing needs to be done. Tester said three Democratic senators have signed onto his bill, S.2633. Ultimately, any bill that passes committee will be the work of Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and ranking member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Tester said. Getting any veterans’ legislation passed this year could mean attaching it to a big “omnibus” bill that combines all sorts of unrelated provisions to draw the support of 60 senators and a majority of House members.
Daines weighs in

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., announced this week that he is cosponsoring Veterans Choice improvement legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and several other GOP senators. That bill, like Tester’s, seeks to streamline and simplify a system to get veterans care in the community.

It doesn’t matter whose bill gets approved, so long as the legislation effectively fixes the problems apparent in the Choice program and doesn’t create new barriers for veterans. A supermajority of Senate Republicans and Democrats will be needed to pass anything out of the Senate.

As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester has extra insight into the Montana-specific problems. As a member of the majority party, Daines should have more pull with Senate leadership, which so far has delayed even bipartisan bills passed by the Veterans Affairs Committee.

We call on Daines and Tester to work together and with their colleagues to get Montana veterans a better deal than the slow, frustration they are now suffering with Veterans Choice. Our American heroes deserve a much better choice.