For our veterans to have to wait long periods of time to receive care is not only unacceptable to us, but to elected officials as well. When faced with evidence that some vets were left waiting an average of 115 days for an appointment, that veterans had died waiting for care, Congress acted. It passed the Veterans Choice act, a well-intended $10 billion program to end this problem by providing veterans a card that would let them see a non-VA doctor if they were more than 40 miles away from a VA facility or they were going to have to wait longer than 30 days for a VA provider to see them.
In an effort to end an inexcusable problem as quickly as possible, Congress gave the Veterans Administration just 90 days to set up the necessary infrastructure and build the network needed to put the program in place. With resources stretched to the max, the only solution was to outsource, so the VA went shopping. It approached 57 companies to gauge their interest in taking on this monumental task.
Only four responded. Two were eventually contracted. From the outset, the program was confusing and complicated. Veterans didn't understand it, doctors didn't understand it. Even VA administrators struggled to figure it out.
Mired in bureaucracy, with performance measures they could not reach, some VA schedulers were told to falsify data. As I noted earlier this month, employees at 40 Veterans Administration medical facilities in 19 states and Puerto Rico began to regularly falsify veteran wait times, in effect "zeroing" them out.
VA rules also created obstacles. Until recently, the VA would not let the contracted companies call veterans directly to schedule an appointment. No, that would make too much sense. The veteran seeking care had to call them. Of course, they first had to find out who "them" was; so much for the concept of streamlining the relationships between local VA medical centers and community providers.
In this process, it wasn't just veterans continuing to be bogged down in the process of waiting by the phone to get authorization for care, doctors who signed on to the program are waiting as well — for payment.
While the VA believes it finally has a network of doctors large enough to handle the patient load for Veterans Choice program, those relationships could be in jeopardy.
According to a report by NPR, in North Carolina more than 30 doctors' offices in the program are dealing with payment problems — some which have lasted more than a year.
Since adopted, the Choice program has seen progressively longer and longer wait-times and, according to care providers, progressively worse follow-through by the program in managing the steps and insuring payments are made. Congress is currently working on a solution to the original fix of the problem and a bill is expected to clear Congress by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, according to Reuters, the VA's two-decade old ban of coverage for in vitro fertilization for U.S. military veterans who are infertile as a result of combat or training-related injuries may finally be overturned as early as this week. As I reported earlier this month, injured veterans unable to have children naturally (due to spinal cord and other injuries) currently must pick up the cost of this treatment, which can run $10,000 or more.
The VA funds in vitro fertilization for active duty-troops, but not covered are service members forced into retirement due to their injuries, who seek the treatment after leaving service. This disparity can affect the recovery and reintegration into civilian life for an estimated 1,800 veterans who have suffered damage to their reproductive organs in the past decade.
Army veteran Matt Keil is but one example of why this policy needs to change. Speaking before members of Congress, he explained the sad irony of his situation. Shot and paralyzed during his second tour in Iraq, he noted how he would have been covered when he was "on a ventilator" at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007. Yet when he was well enough to move home to Colorado, this benefit was no longer available. Relying on savings, credit cards and community fundraisers, Matt and his wife, Tracy, spent $32,000 in 2009 for two cycles of in vitro fertilization. As a result, they delivered twins in 2010.
"My husband was not whole again until the day he held his son," Tracy told Reuters. "That's what he needed to carry him through this life in which every day he's stuck in that wheelchair."
One of the measure's most ardent supporters is the House of Representative member from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth. She is a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost her legs in Iraq. Duckworth and her husband were able to pay for the in vitro treatment that led to the birth of their daughter.
"Our country shouldn't force the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much already to also sacrifice hope of having children of their own," she noted.
This leads me to my final point. While women veterans who have completed their military service face many of the same issues and challenges faced by military men in returning to civilian life, they also face issues that are unique and often unrecognized.
According to a 2014 study, benefits and service programs operated by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs "tend to lag behind in serving women." Many VA clinics lack staff to provide adequate treatment for women. As a result, women veterans tend to underutilize VA care in a world of what they perceive to be male-oriented programs, according to a National Health Care for the Homeless Council report. Among other issues, female veterans are also more likely to be single parents, the VA says, which can make it more difficult to find adequate housing.
In 2015, women veterans represented more than 10 percent of the total U.S. veteran population. Their specific needs and their service cannot be allowed to be short changed.
As we look at the many problems we face in treating our veterans in a manner befitting their service and sacrifice, it's time we commit ourselves as a nation to applying the kind of resources and military precision necessary to finally make things right.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Page