Photo by RaeLynn Ricarte
RUSSELL JONES, veterans’ service officer for Wasco County, holds the new card that he and other former military personnel are being issued to speed up treatment of service-connected illnesses and disabilities.
As of Friday, February 6, 2015
Wasco County Veterans’ Service Officer Russell Jones has been receiving phone calls during the past couple of weeks from clients who want more information about a medical-related card that arrived in the mail.
The Veterans Choice Card allows former military personnel, especially those in rural areas, to avoid lengthy delays for treatment of a service-connected health problem.
“If you qualified and are enrolled in VA health care, you got a card,” said Jones. He said the card is not a free pass for recipients to seek help from a physician outside the Veteran’s Administration network. He said there are caveats on how the card can be used in order for a non-VA care provider to receive payment.
Eligible veterans must either have waited 30 days or more for treatment or live 40 or more miles away from a VA clinic.
Jones said that means Maupin area veterans can use the card anytime while those living in and around The Dalles, which has an established VA clinic, can only use it if they have been waiting a month or more to see a doctor.
“Like everything else, the VA has to authorize these visits,” he said.
He said a veteran meeting requirements for use of the card can call the number on the back to request authorization to get services outside the VA system.
“They can also call or come into our office and we will help them with the process,” said Jones.
He said the card is intended to be used like an information insurance card that allows non-VA providers to verify eligibility for care that has been ongoing.
“This is a three-year pilot program authorized by Congress and it is subject to change,” said Jones.
“The 30-day goal may change in the future and may soon have differing limits between primary care and specialty care appointments.”
The card is a result of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which was enacted by Congress in reaction to the “secret wait lists” scandal involving the VA.
Last year, news surfaced that VA hospitals around the country had secret waiting lists and dozens of veterans had died while waiting for appointments.
Reports then surfaced that records had been falsified by VA executives to hide delays so they could get bonuses related to shorter wait times.
After the VA Office of the Inspector General began an investigation into the scandal, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned his post.
He said that, while he couldn’t explain the lack of integrity among some leaders in his administration, he took responsibility for their actions.
“That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible, and unacceptable to me,” said Shinseki.
As part of the act to improve veteran care, Congress appropriated an additional $10 billion for the VA to buy care from other physicians.
House and Senate conferees categorized the Choice Fund as emergency money so it will be added to the nation’s debt.
Federal officials estimate that about 500,000 veterans will benefit from the new cards. Congress also increased the VA budget by $5 billion to hire new health care providers and speed up treatment timelines.
That funding is to be paid through cuts elsewhere in the VA system, including executive bonuses and by deferring planned rate cuts for some home loans.
Jones said the payroll budget for the Portland VA Health Care System in fiscal year 2016 will be twice that of the current year.
The Portland system currently has 3,154 full-time and 677 part-time employees and is expected to add 202 new full-time staffers. The Dalles clinic has two doctors and a mental health provider.