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Veterans Choice Still Failing, Montana Senators Say

 Tony Lapinski is a Montana veteran who's had trouble using Veterans Choice
Mike Albans
Tony Lapinski is a Montana veteran who's had trouble using Veterans Choice

Both of Montana’s U.S. Senators have sent letters chastising the company that runs the Veterans Choice healthcare program in Montana and 36 other states.

Veterans Choice is supposed to help vets get appointments with private health care providers if they live far from a VA facility, or have been waiting a long time for a VA appointment. It was created in 2014, and has been plagued with problems since the beginning.

"HealthNet isn’t doing what they need to do," said Democrat Jon Tester on Saturday.

"They’ve made it so complicated for hospitals, and so complicated for the veterans, that we're not able to use it in the way that was intended by Congress."

Last week, Northern Montana Hospital in Havre opted out of Veterans Choice, Tester said. And in a letter to HealthNet, he reminded the company that Billings Clinic, the state’s largest hospital network, has never participated in Veterans Choice.

Many hospitals complain about bureaucratic hassles dealing with HealthNet, and of getting paid slowly or not paid at all.

Republican Senator Steve Daines also wrote HealthNet Monday. Daines said his office is getting complaints from health care providers one year after HealthNet promised him it would fix problems.

Senator Daines' letter says he has received "numerous" calls and letters from veterans and health care providers across the state, "expressing a complete loss of confidence in your ability to fulfill your obligations."

Senator Tester, who’s on the Senate Veterans Affairs committee says he’s told the Secretary of Veterans Affairs that HealthNet should be "fired." He also said that the VA should not be held totally responsible for Veterans Choice not working. He and Daines co-sponsored a bill called Veterans First that Tester says could have fixed things.

"And look, Congress has been totally negligent in this," Tester said. "We had a Veterans First Act pass the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously, bipartisan bill. It’s a good bill, that we couldn’t find the time on the floor to pass it, and this was in a session where we spent just a little over 100 days in session. We could have stayed a weekend and got this done, or we could have stayed an extra week in July, or August, or September or October to get this done; and there was no willingness by the leadership to get this done."

HealthNet declined MTPR’s request for an interview for this story. A statement the company sent says it, “continues to do everything it can to address the frustrations experienced by local health care providers in Montana." The company says the average time it takes to process complete claims from Montana is now less than 15 days. It also says that more Montana health care providers participated in the Veterans Choice program in 2016 than the previous year.  HealthNet Federal Services says it, “remains committed to the partnership with congressional leaders, VA and local providers … to ensure veterans in Montana have access to high quality care in a timely manner.”

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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