Tester: VA’s plans to address late payments to providers “long overdue”

Sen. Jon Tester, a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs (center), takes notes as combat veteran Thomas Vanantwerp describes his frustrations with the VA’s CHOICE program during a town-hall meeting held in Missoula on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs this week said it’s taking steps to address a backlog of delayed payments owed to health care providers who serve veterans at clinics outside the VA system – a move Montana Sen. Jon Tester called long overdue.

In its announcement, the VA said it will address delayed payments head-on and apply solutions to solve ongoing payment issues that affect veterans and VA partners.

“It’s vital to the health of our network of providers that we provide payment in a timely and consistent fashion,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement. “Our outside providers are an essential part of our network and we need to improve our system of payments for their services.”

At issue are payments made through the Choice Program, something Congress adopted in 2014 to cover gaps within the VA Health Care System.

Among them, it enabled veterans who were unable to get an appointment within 30 days to receive care from a provider outside the VA system.

It also sought to address a scandalous backlog in the VA system. At the time of its adoption, it served as a win for rural veterans across Montana, where accessing health care and medical specialists can be a difficult, if not impossible, task.

But Tester and area veterans believe the program has failed to work as intended. Tester, a ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was in Missoula last year to get feedback from area vets as Congress looks to fix the system.

Tester said the VA’s plans to address its backlog of payments was long overdue.

“I will hold the VA accountable to ensure this is not a hollow promise,” Tester said. “Veterans’ health care is too important to let government bureaucracy get in the way of doctors who need to serve our veterans. It’s now time for Congress to pass our bipartisan bill so we have a long-term solution that brings stability to community care.”

Tester’s bill, Caring for Our Veterans Act, would replace the Choice Program with a single community health care system that puts the decision of where to seek care in the hands of the veteran and their doctor.

It would cut red tape for community providers that partner with the VA and create new standards for timely payments. It could also enable veterans to get treatment faster.

Veterans seeking care at the VA’s community based outpatient clinic in Missoula are currently facing a multi-month wait to get in.