Montana veteran finally gets VA hospital appointment

MISSOULA, Mont. - We’ve been following veterans around western Montana as they struggle to get appointments for health care.

They’re angry over Veterans Choice and its third party provider, Health Net.  Veterans Choice is supposed to help rural vets get in to see private doctors.

But veterans tell us they can’t get appointments and their bills aren’t paid.

Six months ago we met a veteran in Superior who’d been waiting for months to see a doctor for a partially herniated disc, cracked end plate and benign tumors along his spine and liver.  Nothing cut the pain for Tony Lapinski.  He lost his job.

In May Lapinski told us he had first called the VA in July 2015 and then waited until January 2016 for an appointment.  Now, almost a year later, we caught up with him when he returned on a Greyhound bus to Missoula after a visit to the VA Hospital in Salt Lake City.

“I’m going to have some more answers for the people at home,” he said.  “When I go through my small town of Superior people stop me constantly and ask 'What’s going on?  What have they done for you?'” 

Lapinski used to be a deputy in Mineral County.  His family roots run deep.

“I’ll be able to tell people I am moving along.  There’s going to be a diagnosis sooner or later here.  But I have a long way to go.”

Lapinski will return to Salt Lake next month for more tests.  While he does not have a diagnosis, he feels hope.

“I know they are going to go inside me sooner or later, but I am confident now that I'm not just sitting there at home in pain, slowly going broke,” he said.

While in Salt Lake Lapinski learned the Social Security Administration approved his disability pay.  It’s welcome news.  Making ends meet, he explained, has been tough.

For now, Lapinski must wait for another month.  But he thanked U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for what he describes as tremendous help in securing the appointment.  Tester also introduced a bill designed to let patients bypass the Choice program.  The measure made it out of the Veterans Affairs Committee in May.  Since then it’s been held up waiting for a floor vote in the Senate.

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