COMMENTARY: Veterans Choice Program is helping RGV veterans

BY David J. McIntyre Jr. | Guest Columnist

For too many years, veterans in the Rio Grande Valley, who have served our nation with honor, have had to travel long distances to receive the health care they have earned and deserve. However, with the passage by Congress in 2014 of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, more veterans in the Valley and throughout South Texas have been able to receive quality health care closer to home, thanks to the many community providers that have stepped forward to provide this critical care.

It has been four years since the access to care crisis was exposed at the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear about long waits at the Phoenix VA that forced veterans to wait for needed care, in some cases urgently needed care. This situation, plus the discovery that the issue also existed at locations beyond Phoenix, including the RGV and South Texas, served as the catalyst for the quick passage of the Veterans Choice Act. This act required the Veterans Choice Program to serve as a safety valve for the VA, enabling veterans who are in need of care to see community providers if they were going to face wait times longer than 30 days, or when the closest VA medical facility was farther than 40 miles from their residence.

The Veterans Choice Program is gaining stability in our area of the country — and the outcomes seem to prove that this program is invaluable to our nation’s veterans. To date, TriWest’s network of 200,000 community providers has delivered 8.3 million appointments to 1.1 million veterans. Over 10 million claims for service have been processed and paid that provided care to veterans by community providers on behalf of the VA. That is real progress for our nation’s heroes!

The program’s success would not be possible without the strong support of community healthcare providers that stepped forward and signed on to help improve veterans’ access to care by delivering services to our country’s veterans when the VA is unable to do so directly. One of the finest examples of this public-private partnership is right here in the RGV and South Texas where four community hospitals and 2,000 community providers have come together to support VA’s Outpatient Clinic. They have provided more than 110,000 appointments for 27,000 veterans. The services these amazing community providers have offered has made it possible for veterans in many cases to no longer have to drive to San Antonio for care.

Over the past four years, millions of appointments have been delivered nationally, and collectively we have demonstrated that the concept of providing VA with the elasticity of community care can work. The Veterans Choice Program augments VA care, filling the gaps in VA’s delivery system. It is not privatization — the VA sets high standards and oversees all choice care in the community. The Choice Program is designed to ensure that veterans have ready access to timely and efficient healthcare services in support of VA’s sacred mission on behalf of a grateful nation.

Funding for the Veterans Choice Program is urgently needed to ensure Rio Grande Valley veterans, includ-ing elderly veterans, are able to continue receiving the care they need closer to home. Unless Congress allo-cates additional funds, however, this program will run out of money this month. We hope that Congress will see the wisdom in continuing the Veterans Choice Program so that veterans do not again have to stand in long lines or drive great distances to receive needed medical care.

We believe in a strong VA, not a privatized VA, and have been privileged to serve at the side of VA and the great community of healthcare providers who have leaned forward and committed to serve their fellow citizens in support of the VA’s mission. And, we hope to continue to mature what we have constructed to the benefit of our

nation’s heroes!