MISSOULA, Mont. - Critics say the $10 billion dollar Veterans Choice program has not cut backlogs for veteran’s health care. The measure was signed into law two years ago, a fix for a system so backlogged some vets couldn’t get in to physicians in time to save their lives. Veterans Choice was supposed to let vets in rural areas get in to private clinics and hospitals so they could avoid long drives to VA facilities.
But it isn’t working.
Since we began covering this story, we’ve found Veterans Choice is so slow to pay its bills it has left hospitals cash strapped. We’ve found one Missoula clinic, Missoula Bone and Joint, stopped taking Veterans Choice patients earlier this year.
Veterans like Rich Unger are fed up. Unger loves a lot of things -- fishing the Bitterroot, tying flies and the military. He loves his VA doctors and nurses. But he’s sick and tired of Veterans Choice.
“I find them very inept,” Unger said. “They don't care about the veteran.”
Rich served in Vietnam. He shows us black and white photos of his time in country, a young man sent to war who came home with bad knees, foot problems and PTSD. He is completely disabled. So you’d think he’d have no trouble getting health care from the VA.
Not so much.
“When it takes seven months and you haven't gotten an X-ray for your hand and you are in pain and you have to go pay for your own physical therapy, that's not a choice,” Unger said. He now pays out of pocket instead of waiting for Veterans Choice.
Larry Garrison, in Superior, is faced with the same problem. He almost didn’t make it out of Vietnam. He stepped on a mine.
“It blew the leg off, right here. It blew an inch and a half piece of bone out,” he said, while rolling up his pants and showing the scar.
A young man in war, he now cannot remember a time when his feet didn’t hurt. He can’t go back to his doctors at Missoula Bone and Joint. They told us they stopped taking Veterans Choice patients in March.
“Made me feel like a second-rate citizen,” Garrison said. “Almost got killed in Vietnam, spent six months in the hospital and now VA acts like they don't want to take care of you, period.”
We'd like to say these two veterans' stories are unique. They're not. We found more when we headed down the highway to the Ravalli County Veterans Center.
Workers here estimate 30 to 40 percent of their caseload focuses on problems with Veterans Choice.
“I don't know how many hundreds of calls we made,” said veteran Frank Krajewski. He’s at the center asking for help. Veterans Choice delayed his surgery. And then there are the bills. He says Veterans Choice took one year to pay three. He ended up in collections.
“I cannot rely on the VA anymore, period,” Krajewski said. “I almost want to drop VA. But I love my doctor.”
He’s so sick of it, he bought his own insurance policy and then turned to Medicare for the rest. His case worker’s fed up, too.
Mike Warner is with the Ravalli County Veterans Office. He’s angry about the problems veterans are facing.
“Now Frank’s spending his own hard-earned money, his limited money because he's retired, to get the health care that was promised to him,” Warner said. “That's wrong. It is a crime in my opinion.”
A fix seems hard to find. But the one things these vets know is a promise made, should be a promise kept.