New problems for Veterans Choice in Montana

MISSOULA, Mont. - President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Dr. David Shulkin to head the Veterans Administration, replacing current Secretary Robert McDonald.

Shulkin's nomination comes at a time when the VA is taking hits for performance problems.

NBC Montana traveled to Helena last fall to interview Montana VA Director Dr. Kathy Barger about problems with Veterans Choice, the program intended to speed patient wait times by funneling veterans to private health care providers in their own community when they can't get timely appointments in a VA clinic.

Barger told us problems with the Choice program and contract administrator HeathNet were improving.  She said the community network would be essential for veterans health care going forward.  Barger told us the Veterans Administration simply didn't have resources to provide specialty services in all communities because Montana's rural population is small and distances are frequently large.

She said the list of private community providers was growing.  In October she counted close to 200 providers who were signed on to serve Veterans Choice patients.

This week, however, the Choice program is facing new problems.

Northern Montana Hospital in Havre dropped the program, joining Missoula Bone and Joint, Billings Clinic and others who complain they are not paid in a timely manner, even after spending hours on the phone.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) reacted, saying he was "beyond frustrated" with HealthNet.

Wednesday, another blow, as Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) announced that Fort Harrison was downgraded from two stars to one in a performance rating. 

We requested a copy of the rating from Fort Harrison but were told it is not available for public review.

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