More veterans can choose their doctor – and Veterans Affairs will pay for it under new law

by Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

After years of private doctors going unpaid for caring for military veterans, the federal government is abandoning a program in which third-party contractors paid the bills.

Veterans Affairs will be the primary payer to doctors caring for military veterans under the Veterans Choice Program. Veteran’s choice was created in 2014 in response to a health care crisis for military veterans, in which delayed federal care lead to the deaths of some veterans. The Choice Program quickly broke down.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law the changes drafted by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and three Republican senators. Tester is the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

“So this is called the Choice Program Improvement Act. It speaks for itself,” President Trump said at the signing ceremony. “This bill will extend and improve the Veterans Choice Program so that more veterans can see the doctor of their choice – you got it? The doctor of their choice – and don’t have to wait and travel long distances for VA care. Some people have to travel five hours, eight hours, and they’ll have to do it on a weekly basis, and even worse than that. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

The 2014 Choice Program allowed veterans to see private doctors if the waiting list at VA clinics was a month long, or if the veterans lived more than 40 miles from a VA facility. Guaranteed military health benefits were to cover the costs of the care provided by private doctors when the burden of traveling or waiting for the VA was too high.

But the program quickly spun out of control in state’s like Montana, where many veterans live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility. Those veterans overwhelmed the private contractor hired to manage scheduling and pay debts owed to private doctors.

In Montana, 18,843 veterans have used the Choice Program to make 41,435 appointments, according Health Net data provided to the Senate.

“This law will take critical steps to begin to fix the Choice Program so it works for veterans and community providers across Montana,” Tester said in a press release after the president signed the bill into law. “Republicans, Democrats, and independents put politics aside and supported this bill because it cuts red tape for our veterans and improves access to health care for the folks who served.”

Tester said more work needs to be done to make the Choice Program perform better, including requiring third-party contractors to disclose performance data, something lawmakers currently have to negotiate to see.

In Montana, Tester managed to get the VA to personally handle scheduling issues for veterans interested in using the Choice Program. One of the concerns expressed by veterans was that the third-party contractor, Health Net, was not only not paying bills owed to private physicians, but also was not effectively handling the scheduling requests of veterans.

The scheduling wasn’t working out. At times, veterans were scheduled for visits to VA clinics far away if the treatment could be done within a month. Distance became even more of a burden for some vets.

“This new law is a good start, but there is still much work to do,” Trump said. “We will fight each and every day to deliver the long-awaited reforms our veterans deserve and to protect those who have so courageously protected each and every one of us.”

Fixing the Choice Program has been a priority for Tester. His co-sponsors were Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jerry Moran, R-Kans.