June 29, 2016

Crapo, Invitees Appreciate VA Meeting; Say More Accountability Needed

VA Secretary McDonald meets vets service representatives for roundtable discussion in Boise

Boise - Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald visited Boise Tuesday to speak at the VA Medical Center about health care and other service programs.  Idaho Senator Mike Crapo invited the Secretary to learn firsthand the concerns of Idaho veterans over heath care and other services.  As the Senate remains in session, Crapo was unable to attend the meetings in person but communicated through staff and those invited to attend.  Crapo invited members of Idaho veteran service organizations, as well as some health care providers, to meet with the Secretary for a roundtable discussion held at the Boise VA campus.  This discussion focused on the beleaguered Veterans Choice Program (VCP) and possible areas for improvement.

Problems with the VCP continue to drive Crapo's fight for much needed improvements.  He is concerned with the ways the program's shortcomings impact Idaho's veterans, especially those in rural communities.  Despite efforts to improve the program, some veterans must travel long distances from rural areas in order to get access to the medical care they need.  This can require veterans to spend significant time and money traveling, a challenge made worse when the veteran is in pain.  The surveys also reveal that significant delay in repayment to local providers has made it increasingly difficult for local providers to continue to provide care to veterans.

Secretary McDonald thanked the participants for attending and Crapo for the invitation.  Many of those attending the roundtable thanked the Secretary for coming to Idaho to hear the concerns of veterans.

Mel Napier, the Legislative Chairman for the American Legion in Idaho, attended the visit and said, "The agenda matched what we're interested in.  The Choice Program, being relatively new; things came up that you don't plan on like being so many miles from a (care) center."  Napier said Idaho is fortunate with the fine facilities the state has for veterans.

Cindy Rock, Clinics Director of Operations for Idaho State University's Division of Health Sciences, spoke directly with Secretary McDonald during the working lunch roundtable.  She said he acknowledged problems with third party administrators may soon improve.

"It was nice to be heard," Rock said.  "He didn't try to push us off at all.  He said get us the information and we'll get it taken care of."  She noted the Pocatello-based audiology program's problems with scheduling veterans has taken a toll on appointments.  "Maybe a quarter of the patients just gave up.  The process is difficult.  These people are elderly and they can't hear well."  She said some veterans received appointments when they were out of the country or at 1:00 in the morning.  "The secretary said changes may be coming," she said. "I hope he takes the opportunity to read the surveys that Senator Crapo put together and sees the frustrations.  That's where the real story is.  But I'm glad we have the funds to continue to serve veterans," Rock added.

"I thank Secretary McDonald for coming to Boise.  Tuesday's meetings were the beginning of a dialogue that may improve the lives of Idaho veterans and their families, and is one of many steps the VA must take in order to be accountable for its past failures.  It must continue to work toward identifying and implementing the changes necessary to serve our veterans.  Further, I am glad that members of Idaho's veteran community were able to come meet with the Secretary and share their experiences with him directly.  I understand that some legislative reforms are needed and I am working on legislative efforts to improve the non-VA care programs, including Choice," said Crapo.  "The VA budget has been raised 86 percent since 2009.  The VA cannot continue to blame Congress for its inability to care for our nation's veterans.  The challenge remains for the VA to use its resources more effectively with local non-VA care providers to provide medical care and services to veterans.  Future changes to the Choice program must focus on ensuring veteran access to specialty care and care in the community when access to a VA medical center is difficult or unfeasible.  Legislation alone cannot solve all of the problems facing the VA.  While important needed changes must come through legislation, there are many things the VA can do at a management level to improve veterans' experiences with the VA.  I will continue to push the agency to improve both through legislation and other efforts."

In addition to the roundtable with community providers, the Secretary met with the local VA medical center and VA benefits administration staff.  McDonald also visited the women's clinic on the VA campus, and met with representatives from the Telehealth program.  Boise serves as the Veterans Integrated Service Network, or VISN hub for most of Idaho and all of Alaska, Washington and Oregon, and during his visit, the Secretary used Boise's Telehealth equipment to speak with a veteran in Anchorage.

# # #