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Editorial: Iffy Choice for veterans

On the surface, it sounds like a simple solution: If U.S. veterans can’t get timely care through the Veterans Affairs health system, let the VA foot the bill for them to see private physicians. That was the premise of the $10 billion Choice Program, implemented in 2014 after horror stories surfaced across the nation about veterans waiting months and months for appointments. Some died for lack of care.

Through Choice, veterans who faced more than a 30-day wait for an appointment or lived more than 40 miles from the closest VA facility were supposed to be able to get speedier, closer care from approved providers outside the VA system. The reality has been more complicated — and more frustrating for veterans.

The complications started when a private  contractor, Health Net, was named as the go-between for veterans, the VA and private providers. Before Choice, VA staff had the ability to directly schedule appointments for veterans in the community. Now Health Net creates an additional layer of bureaucracy between the patient and the provider.   

Barbara and Charles Greene of Kannapolis are among the people who have become frustrated by the Choice Program, as reported in Sunday’s Post. Charles experienced delays in scheduling, and his private provider did not receive payment — problems cited across the country. In fact, Novant Health Rowan Medical Center officials recently met with counterparts at the VA to discuss payment and other issues.

According to a recent VA Inspector General’s report, only about 13 percent of eligible veterans chose to make appointments through the Choice Program. Obstacles identified included cumbersome authorization and scheduling procedures, inadequate provider networks and potential veteran liability for treatment costs. 

On the horizon may be a plan to allow veterans to use the VA as, in essence, an insurance provider and to put VA hospitals in competition with private-sector counterparts. That’s the scenario proposed by people who have met with President Trump. Members of Congress have their ideas, too. Sen. Thom Tillis, for example, suggests eliminating pre-authorization.

Monday, Sen. Richard Burr released a statement saying he looked forward to working with newly confirmed VA Secretary David Shulkin to ensure veterans’ care. “This includes making sure that the Veterans Choice Program is not only improved but is also made permanent so that our veterans never have to wait for health care,” Burr said.

Before Congress makes Choice permanent, the program must be made more efficient. Otherwise, an initiative intended to improve veterans’ care could make it worse — and add another layer of expense in the process.

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