Florida Elder Law & Estate Planning Blog

Veterans Choice Program falls short of the mark

Veterans Choice Program

Our veterans have not always gotten what they deserve from our nation. With Memorial Day here, it’s time to recommit ourselves to doing a better job.

The Veterans Aid and Attendance program provides disabled and elderly veterans financial help to cover the cost of at-home care, assisted living or nursing home care. In our experience, too many veterans do not know that the program exists. Among those who do know, too many wrongfully believe they are not eligible because they do not have a service-connected disability.

Aid and Attendance is only one of a myriad of Veterans Administration health-related programs. Unfortunately, applicants often experience so much stress and frustration getting access to benefits that the process becomes, well, almost like fighting a war. No doubt the V.A. has its heart in the right place But it is a vast, lumbering bureaucracy that falls short more often than it should.

Take, for example, the Veterans Choice Program  we told you about in 2014. Veterans Choice was introduced to shorten the horrifyingly long wait times veterans experienced trying to get medical care from the V.A. Under the program, a veteran could receive care from a private medical provider, at V.A. expense, if the veteran (1) faced a wait time of over 30 days, or (2) had a medical issue that required timely attention, or (3) lived more than 40 miles from a V.A. health facility.

Simple idea, right? As it turns out, deceptively simple. The program has been plagued by problems since inception. A recent NPR article notes that wait times have actually increased. Veterans and medical providers alike are still struggling to understand the program. Providers have difficulty getting authorized to provide care, and are not compensated by the V.A. in a timely fashion. According to a February 2016 report in Military Times, many veterans using the Choice program have even seen their credit scores compromised when unpaid providers go after them for payment.

Critics attribute the problems to the fact that the V.A., under enormous pressure to lessen wait times, put together the complex $10 billion dollar program so quickly – about nine months. Not a small amount of blame is also pinned on TriWest and HealthNet, the two private contractors to which the V.A. outsourced day-to-day responsibility for administering the program.

In short, the V.A. Choice program has not proved to be the solution that veterans, Congress and the V.A. expected it to be. As Senator John Tester of Montana, one of the program’s proponents, has said, “Bottom line is the Choice program is broken. We need to fix it and we need to fix it as soon as possible.” On March 3 Tester introduced a fix: Senate Bill 2633, the “Improving Veterans Access to Care in the Community Act.” The proposed law would allow the V.A.’s own community care programs to be consolidated into one program, with streamlined and consistent rules. Proponents of the bill believe that would solve many of the original program’s flaws. You can read the text of the bill here.

By next Memorial Day – preferably much, much sooner – it would be wonderful to report that our veterans have a Choice program that really works for them. They deserve it!