Veterans Choice Program not working well, Tester to help

by Rodger McConnell – Great Falls Tribune

Along with a small group of other veteran advocates, I recently attended a senatorial outreach meeting with Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Tester had called us to the meeting to discuss universal frustration with the Veteran Choice Program.

I’m a Vietnam combat veteran and I shared with Tester my own experiences with Choice. I’m now 71 years old and, although I was not badly wounded during my tour in 1967, time has taken a toll on my body and, like a high-mileage old car, I need a lot of time in the “shop” with qualified mechanics (doctors).

Congress passed Choice two years ago, a program designed to reduce medical wait times by providing rural veterans access to healthcare treatment outside the overcrowded Veterans Affairs facility in Helena. Unfortunately, bureaucratic hurdles and an ineffective third-party administrator have kept many resources from getting to the ground and helping veterans get in the door.

Just two weeks after my conversation with Tester, he introduced legislation to fix the issues veterans are having with the Choice program. Tester’s bill will streamline and consolidate all of the VA’s Care in the Community programs into a single, efficient initiative that will be easier for veterans and health care providers to navigate.

Tester’s bill also provides incentives for more local hospitals and clinics to join the Choice program and be reimbursed in a timely manner by the VA for treating veterans, which will improve veterans’ access to much-needed care.

Finally, Tester’s bill will provide veterans the opportunity to schedule their appointments directly with folks here in Montana, and not be forced to schedule through HealthNet – an annoying third-party call center in Florida.

While I believe that the employees at HealthNet have respect for veterans and good intentions, I have borne witness to many inefficiencies and lengthy delays in the scheduling process, including one day when I received three phone calls from three separate and very confused HealthNet agents, all pertaining to the approval of the same appointment.

In fact, Tester told me that he is not even sure those people could point to Montana on a map, much less know the difference between Great Falls and Gildford. We need schedulers who understand the frontier nature of our great state and the vast distances and dangerous weather conditions we have had to navigate in order to receive the health care we have earned.

Once Tester’s bill is signed into law, it will finally provide rural veterans with quality access to health care outside of the VA. Just like when he doubled the travel reimbursement for disabled veterans, helped open new medical clinics and veterans’ centers across the state, and defeated Congress’ attempt to cut veterans’ health care by $700 million, Tester is fighting for Montana veterans.

I want to personally thank the senator for once again standing up for Montana’s veteran population. We need a U.S. senator on point who will fight the good fight for those who have fought for our country.

Rodger McConnell of Great Falls is a Vietnam War veteran who hosts a public-radio program called “On Point: Veterans Talk Radio,” on KGPR Radio, 89.9 in Great Falls, every other Tuesday at 1 p.m.