Thanks to the bipartisan efforts of three members of Congress, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) will audit the VA’s Veterans Choice program, which has been plagued by countless complaints from veterans and health care providers alike. In an effort to help veterans, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D, NY), Senator Johnny Isakson (R, Georgia), and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D, Connecticut) have convinced the GAO to conduct a comprehensive audit of the Veterans Choice program.
The program was created in response to the tragic wait time scandal, in which at least 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system. When Congress passed the Veterans Choice and Accountability Act and President Obama signed it into law in August 2014, the idea was to expand the availability of hospital care and medical services for veterans.
In May 2014 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki had to resign because of the wait time scandal. Then, in November 2014, Sharon Helman was fired by the VA. Helman had been the VA executive who was in charge of the Phoenix VA Health Care System at the time of the scandal and the subsequent attempt to cover it up.
At the time, many people thought that the problem was solved because of Shinseki’s resignation and Helman’s firing. However, CNN was perceptive enough to ask, But will that improve things at VA hospitals? The answer seems to be an emphatic no. In fact, there is ample evidence that that the Veterans Choice program is a disaster.
Senator Isakson is the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Senator Blumenthal is the ranking member of that committee. During a committee hearing held on Thursday, Isakson asked VA Secretary Robert McDonald how the VA plans to address the many issues the VA has faced during its implementation of the Veterans’ Choice Program. McDonald had no answers.
For example, Isakson pointed out that earlier this month a large health care provider in New Hampshire announced that it would no longer participate in the Choice Program because the VA has failed to provide payment for services rendered. Despite the best efforts of Congress and the President, the VA has found another way to make sure that veterans get the short end of the stick.
NPR reports that the New Hampshire pain management company, PainCare, has notified its patients that as of February 1st, it will no longer accept Veterans Choice. PainCare spokesman Tom Barnes told NPR, “Of course we want to continue with these patients. The thing is, we’re doing a lot of work, but we’re not getting any reimbursement for it.”
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter represents the Rochester area in Western New York. She explains the situation this way in her press release. “In summer 2014, more than 120,000 veterans were waiting more than 125 days for health care services. In response, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which established the VCP. Two third-party administrators—Health Net and Tri-West—were awarded $5 billion and $4.3 billion, respectively, to implement the program.”
Health Net is responsible for the non-payments to PainCare. However, Health Net could not tell NPR what percentage of claims it had paid on time or even how many claims have been paid on time. PainCare finally got its first payment from the Veterans Choice program in December, but it is still owed about $70 thousand dollars.
But that is only part of the problem. Barnes says that dealing with the Veterans Choice bureaucrats is a nightmare. “Even just receiving a phone call; if they call us, they require us to recite our company name, our address, our phone number, and fax. And that’s when they call us. Same thing when you call them.” Barnes also says that according to the VA, it has to schedule the veteran’s first appointment, and that visit must fall within an authorization period determined by the VA without consulting the health care provider.
Moreover, there have been many times when the VA hasn’t called to make the appointment before the authorization period expired. When that happens, the veteran has to start all over again trying to get an appointment for medical care. How ironic is that, when you consider that this kid of time delay was the exact reason why the Veterans Choice program was created in the first place?