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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Sen. Tester Proposes Fix For Veterans Choice Program

Veterans Choice, file photo.
Courtesy Veterans Administration
Veterans Choice, file photo.

Sen. Jon Tester has introduced a proposed fix for the year-old Veterans Choice program.

"This is a big deal for veterans. It’s a big deal for the VA and I think [it’ll be] a big deal once we get it passed.”

Veterans Choice was supposed to help vets get medical appointments more quickly or closer to home. The $10 billion program was launched after the scandal over long wait times for veterans broke in Phoenix two years ago.

Tester, who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, helped pass Veterans Choice, but he says it’s not working like it’s supposed to.

“Take for instance a 75-year-old veteran from Havre. He was referred to his VA primary doctor to a cardiologist. VA Montana does not have that specialist in Havre, so he got routed through [Veterans] Choice.”

Tester says his constituent got nowhere fast with HealthNet, the government contractor that Montana veterans now use to schedule local appointments:

"Then after 6 months – that’s right, 6 months – VA Montana scheduled the appointment themselves, bypassing HealthNet and getting the job done at a hospital in Great Falls. They ran a cardiogram and it was not good. He was then scheduled for heart surgery. This is unacceptable.”

Tester’s new VA reform bill would allow veterans to bypass the government contractor. They’d use Montana’s VA to help get seen more quickly or closer to home, and the VA would help them schedule those appointments instead of HealthNet.

"But that isn’t the only thing this bill does for our veterans. It also includes part of my 'DOCS for Veterans Act' to increase residency slots at the VA. That’s going to build a stronger pipeline of doctors into the VA and into the rural areas of this country. It also has provisions to fill VA leadership vacancies that are impacting the delivery of care for our veterans. We saw that in Montana. This, hopefully will fix that."

It also imposes stricter rules to ensure the VA reimburses medical providers "in a timely manner."

“That means 30 days from the time the doc, or the hospital, or the clinic sends out their bill. We had some examples far, far more than 30 days. If they don’t meet that 30-day threshold, they pay interest. That’s the way everybody works, anyway."

It also would bolster VA efforts to recruit more mental health counselors as well as family and marriage therapists. The proposal requires stronger opioid prescription guidelines for health providers and patients alike. Services for homeless veterans would expand as well.

Tester says the legislation could hit the Senate floor next month and is on pace to pass by Memorial Day. He doesn’t think election year hijinks could hurt its chances, at least in the Senate.

"I think it’s going to pass the Senate, but I can make no predictions about the House of Representatives. To be honest there’s been some 'non agreement' – we’ll just put it that way – politics. Republican on Republican politics in this particular case, between the chair of the House and the Chair of the Senate Committee.”

But he hopes the House of Representatives will eventually approve the package. The massiveVeterans First Act comes with an estimated price tag of about $4 billion. Its supporters say it will produce enough savings to eventually pay for itself.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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