Montana’s U.S. senators still unhappy with Veterans Choice

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Montana’s U.S. senators continue to lambaste the company that runs Veterans Choice, a health-care program intended to increase veterans’ access to health care but marked by issues since its start.

Roughly two years ago, Congress rushed the federal program into existence to help connect veterans to private health-care providers if they face a long wait for Veterans Affairs appointments or if they live far from a VA clinic.

But since its implementation, many veterans have said access to care has worsened and they feel lost in the large system. On the other end, providers have complained of delayed reimbursements and an inability to reach the company for answers.

Montana veterans fall under the care of Health Net, a company based in California that received the contract to run the $10-billion program in 37 states.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said veterans and providers in rural communities have expressed “a complete loss of confidence” in Health Net’s ability to administer what was intended as a lifeline.

He said he’s heard from providers who no longer want to pour resources into a program that faces bureaucratic failures “such as payment delays ranging from three to eight months, the inability to reach claims representatives for hours at a time and the frequent run-around on basic correspondence as simple as status checks.”

Health Net declined the Daily Inter Lake’s request for an interview. In a press release, the company stated that it “continues to do everything we can to address the frustrations experienced by local health care providers in Montana.”

Health Net has worked with the VA to make more timely payment of claims, according to the press release. As a result, the company’s average time to process complete claims from Montana now takes less than 15 days.

More Montana health-care providers have also participated in the Veterans Choice program in 2016 than the previous year, according to the release.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he appreciates the steps taken by the VA and Health Net to respond to the issues Montanans face with Veterans Choice, but the company’s core responsibilities “have fallen short.”

Tester pointed out in a Jan. 5 letter to Health Net President and CEO Jay Gellert that the company is struggling to retain its providers.

Tester’s letter reminded Health Net that more than a dozen of Montana’s medical providers have opted-out of the Choice program — that includes the state’s largest health-care provider, Billings Clinic. The letter was released two days after the Northern Montana Hospital in Havre became the latest health-care facility in the state to step back from the program.

“I am beyond frustrated that I continue to hear many of the same unresolved issues from veterans, community providers and even VA employees in Montana,” Tester wrote. “... Given that it is a problem more than two years in the making, I find it hard to believe that it remains unresolved.”

The Choice Program is set run out of funding this August. At this point, lawmakers’ attempts to remove the program’s sunset date have failed.

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