By Jenny Neyman
Representatives from the Veterans Administration in Alaska had good news to share at a town hall meeting Thursday evening at Kenai Peninsula College — veterans on the Kenai Peninsula eligible for VA health care now have more options to receive timely, localized care, and even have a free way to get to that care.
The meeting was to explain the changes that came with the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.
The Choice program offers just that. In the past, veterans eligible for VA benefits generally had to receive their care directly from a VA facility, which could mean a lot of traveling and waiting in areas where VA facilities are limited or understaffed to meet demand. With the Choice program, eligible veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or if the VA isn’t able to provide care within 30 days, can obtain care in the private sector, with the VA pitching in to cover the bill, as much as it would if a VA clinic was providing the care.
Susan Yeager, director of the Alaska VA Healthcare System, said that the purpose of the program is to give the VA time to increase its capacity to meet patient needs, and in the meantime, give vets better care.
“When this bill was passed, for Choice Act, the idea was that it was a three-year pilot, allowing the VA to build up their staff, so that at the end of three years the VA has enough staff so that veterans can get the care they need, when they need it, at a VA,” she said.
Alaska is one of three states, Hawaii and New Hampshire being the other two, where all vets eligible for VA health benefits can utilize the Choice program. To do so, a vet would call the number on their Choice card and request to see a private-practice provider. The VA’s vendor for the program, Tricare, is currently creating a network of preferred providers in the state. But even if a provider isn’t part of the arranged network, Tricare can contact that provider and try to negotiate a rate at which the VA will compensate for services.
Initially, it was difficult to get private providers to be willing to work with Tricare, because the reimbursement rate was not very competitive, Yeager said. The rate was recently increased, and more providers are joining the network.
“I think we’re going to see more access opening up in Alaska,” she said.
The program is especially well suited here, where access to care is a big challenge. The VA has a shared agreement to use the U.S. Air Force Hospital 673rd at JBER in Anchorage, but doesn’t have its own hospital in the state. And Anchorage is a long way away from most communities.
The VA operates regional, community-based outpatient clinics, including the one in Kenai, which is rated to serve the 2,589 eligible vets on the Kenai that have enrolled for VA services. But even Kenai, and VA services in Homer, can make for a long trip for patients. And in rural areas of the state, accessing a VA clinic can mean a plane or boat ride.
“It’s a big challenge, I think, up here, more than other VAs I’ve seen in the Lower 48, because of our distances and lack of roads. And that’s expensive, too,” Yeager said.