Boise & Garden City

In Boise visit, VA chief hears improvements needed in Choice program

One Idaho veteran seeking an appointment for a hearing issue was told to come in at 1 in the morning.

Another received an appointment on a day he had already informed the scheduler he would be out of the country.

Even those given suitable appointments under the Veterans Choice program often have to wait weeks or months to see their health care provider.

Those were among the complaints shared Tuesday with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald during his one-day visit in Boise. The visit was arranged by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. Aides working for Crapo and the other three members of Idaho’s congressional delegation attended the sesssion. Their bosses were in Washington, D.C., and could not be there.

“The biggest issue, I believe, is the scheduling issue. It is very difficult for a veteran to schedule an appointment in our clinic or any clinic, for that matter,” said Cindy Rock, who oversees the operation of health care clinics operated by Idaho State University.

McDonald met with 30 to 40 people, attendees said. Reporters were not allowed to attend, and McDonald did not speak to the press.

When the federal Department of Veterans Affairs introduced its Veterans Choice program two years ago, it was supposed to alleviate the large backlog of veterans seeking medical care. Under the program, anyone who lived more than 40 miles away from a VA hospital or clinic or who has waited more than 30 days for an appointment could obtain care at a facility outside the VA system.

However, the program has received widespread criticism. Veterans have complained they’re been denied service, they’ve waited an hour or more on the phone to speak with an appointment scheduler at a call center and that it takes months for the VA to pay claims for services. ISU, for example, still hasn’t been paid for some services provided last year.

Before the Veterans Choice program was introduced, ISU was under contract for six years serving veterans with hearing problems and some with physical therapy needs. During that time, the clinics served an average of 3,900 veterans per year. The VA’s Pocatello clinic does not have an audiologist, which led to the contract with ISU.

“Patients could get their authorizations relatively easy and contact us and get an appointment. The billing process was very easy and the veterans were very happy,” said Rock, who works out of the Pocatello-based university’s Meridian campus.

Last year, after the contract ended and ISU was added to the Veterans Choice program, the number of patients seen by the ISU clinics dropped sharply. From last July to last Friday, the clinics served only about 900 veterans. While some of their former patients ended up going to other providers, a large number did not, Rock said.

“We do know that people gave up. ... They gave up their right to have a good quality of life because it was so difficult for them to schedule an appointment,” she said.

Rock said she was grateful for the opportunity to speak directly with McDonald and share her concerns.

“It was a very positive meeting,” Rock said. “He did seem genuinely concerned about our issues.”

She said another provider told McDonald that they quit seeing veterans after experiencing lengthy delays in getting paid.

“He basically just said give me your information and we will get it taken care of immediately, Rock said.

On Wednesday, Rock said she got a call from a regional office in Salt Lake City that had already begun working on ISU’s back claims billings.

Mel Napier, legislative chairman for the American Legion in Idaho, said he was pleased McDonald came to Idaho to hear directly from veterans and service providers. He said 30 to 40 people were included in the group that met with the secretary.

Unlike some other VA hospitals that have long backlogs, the Boise VA Medical Center sees patients in a timely manner, Napier said, giving it high marks. He said he expected there would be some bumps in the Veterans Choice program, but he hopes the VA will be able to address the concerns and make improvements.

“Most veterans I’ve spoken with are very satisfied with the services from the (Boise) VA,” Napier said.

In a 2015 survey of Idaho veterans conducted by Crapo’s office, 52 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Fifteen percent said they were dissatisfied and 12 percent were very dissatisfied. Another 21 percent said they were neutral.

Crapo said he appreciated McDonald coming to Idaho and listening to concerns. He praised the secretary for having his staff move immediately to clear up the problem with paying providers.

“One of the issues that I hope will bring some fruit is bringing the attention of the secretary to the importance of the VA doing what it can to improve the Veterans Choice program,” Crapo said. “These delays in having expeditious access to treatment are one of the top concerns of veterans in Idaho.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell