Montana VA chief reports system improvements

Montana VA chief reports system...

MISSOULA, Mont. - A new Government Accountability Office report found the Veterans Health Administration didn’t do enough to check physicians’ credentials. 

GAO reports Health Net didn’t make sure six Veterans Choice physicians were certified to prescribe controlled substances and TriWest couldn’t show it had verified most of its Veterans Choice physicians’ credentials.

Analysts conclude that a lack of oversight means there is a chance unqualified physicians are being hired to treat veterans.

The report highlights problems veterans have been sharing with us -- issues like long waits, unpaid medical bills and no answers to their questions.

We took those questions straight to top of the Montana Veterans Health system.

In her Fort Harrison office in Helena, interim director Dr. Kathy Berger reports the Montana VA health system is improving.

“VA Montana is filled with a lot of good people who are great supporters of the mission of taking care of veterans.” Berger said.

We drove to Helena so Berger could answer questions we’ve heard from dozens of veterans.  At the top of the list -- “Why can’t I get in faster to see my doctor?”  The question came from emails and Facebook comments where patients claimed they’d wait weeks or months for an appointment.

Berger explained a top goal for the VA:  “One of Dr. Shulkin's priorities -- the undersecretary Dr. David Shulkin -- one of his priorities by the end of this year is to provide same-day access in both primary care and mental health.”

She said wait times are improving and offered these statistics:  eight days for a new patient to get in to a primary doctor, five days for an established patient, 18 days to see a specialist and two and a half days for an established mental health patient.

And there’s more.

“Every VA facility is going to be standing up a call center which has multiple parts,” Berger said.  “One for pharmacy.  One for scheduling.  One for nurse triage.  So we are in the process right now of hiring the staff, registered nurses and clerical staff to stand up that call center so a veteran can call and readily get through and have their concerns addressed that day.”

And then there’s the problem of Veterans Choice, run by a third-party provider called HealthNet.  Vets complain about long waits, getting stuck with the bills or not being able to find a doctor. 

Take veteran Larry Garrison from Superior, for example.  “My knee is bothering me a lot,” he said when he met us last summer.  A landmine ruined his knee in Vietnam.  Now he can’t get anyone to help him after his orthopedic clinic stopped taking Veterans Choice last March.  Clinic officials told NBC Montana they had tried everything before cutting off those patients, even offering to treat them for free.  But no answers from VA and $220,000 in unpaid bills sealed the eal.                                                  

Berger had this answer, “I believe that's getting better, and I think with the provider agreements now, where the VA is working directly with those community providers, that has eased a lot of anxiety we saw early on in the program.”

She admits Veterans Choice caused problems.  But she says it’s here to stay.

“It's important for the VA to have a good, solid network of community providers to partner with us to provide care,” Berger said.  “We simply can't offer every specialty and every type of medicine in every location.”

Other issues seem exclusive to Montana, with its 73,000 veterans eligible for VA healthcare spread over 147,040 square miles.  It is a state where travel to clinics is measured in hours, like our hour and 40-minute drive from Missoula to Fort Harrison to look for answers.

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