Vets center encouraged by new health care improvement act


HAMILTON, Mont. - Veterans groups are reviewing a new law that could improve health care for many Montana veterans.

President Trump has signed U.S. Senator Jon Tester's bipartisan Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act into law.

Veterans Choice allows rural veterans to obtain health care outside the Veterans Administration system so they can see local providers.

Some hospitals and clinics had not been reimbursed. Its complicated paperwork involving many agencies has left scores of veterans waiting months for appointments and unexpected out-of-pocket expenses.

But under the new act the VA will be the main provider.

To get perspective on the new law NBC Montana visited the Valley Veterans Service Center in Hamilton. It helps veterans navigate the VA system.

Veterans Choice was designed to help vets who live more than 50 miles from a VA hospital get care close to home. For many veterans it's been a tangled bureaucracy.

"In our office," said Valley Veterans Service Center director Mike Warner, "we probably see one or two people a day coming in and asking questions about the choice program."

Minutes before we talked to Warner on Thursday he had just straightened out a paperwork problem for a veteran who needed hearing aids.

Warner said the new law should eliminate a lot of the red tape. It provides direct communication between the VA and third party providers.

"Hopefully we'll see a lot of things change," he said, "with faster pay to these outside agencies and hopefully getting appointments set up faster for people that qualify for the choice program."

There are more than 5,000 veterans living in Ravalli County, which makes it one of Montana's highest veteran population communities.

More than 1,000 of those veterans use the VA as their primary source of health care, which includes Veterans Choice.

We met veteran J.W. Spain at the Veterans Service Center. Spain told us he waited 11 weeks to get an appointment for new glasses. He's been waiting since January to see about his knee.

"There are times when the weather is really bad that I can hardly walk," he said. "And I wanted to see my doctor and have X-rays done, but they haven't done anything for that."

Warner said some veterans have been so frustrated they've given up.

But he is encouraged with this new law. He said it should help prevent those frustrated vets from falling through the cracks.

"If this improves the system and makes it more streamlined, hopefully it's one phone call that I have to make to get an authorization sent out to get these taken care of," he said.

The more streamlined the better.

The Valley Veterans Service Center serves 950 clients a year and that number continues to grow.

On Thursday, Sen. Jon Tester's office said the bill will reduce out-of-pocket costs for vets while helping them book appointments faster.

The office also said it will improve the sharing of medical records between the VA and community providers.

Tester has also introduced the PACT Act to make contracts between the VA and private contractors publicly available.