By Thomas Garcia
QCS Senior Writer
Veterans, their family members and health care providers met Wednesday to discuss concerns or questions they may have on the Veterans Choice Program at the VFW Post 2528.
Their top concern continues to be ready access to health care, according to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, whose office co-hosted the meeting along with the city of Tucumcari.
Representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Tri-West Healthcare Alliance, which administers the Choice program, answered questions about how to qualify and participate in the program.
The session is part of the Heinrich’s continuing efforts to help veterans in rural New Mexico. In March, Heinrich met with local veterans for lunch at the VFW in Tucumcari. Heinrich, a Democrat, is seeking to improve veterans’ health care access in areas of the state, such as Quay County, where VA medical facilities are one to two hours away.
“Veterans in New Mexico – especially in rural parts of the state – have shared with me how difficult it can be to access the health care they need depending on where they live,” Heinrich said. “We’ve got to find better ways to meet veterans where they are, and New Mexico is certainly a case study for where we need to find innovative solutions like Veterans Choice to connect veterans to service without them always having to travel such great distances.”
TriWest is a private company that has a contract with the VA to manage the program and is tasked with establishing networks of community providers to act as a resource for the VA, said Patrick Shipley, southwest regional director.
Shipley said the network of community providers is needed when it takes more than 30 days for a veteran to be seen by a health care profession or it is more than 40 miles to the nearest VA medical facility.
Shipley said the program was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2014 to ensure all veterans, especially those in rural western states, have access to health care. Heinrich voted in support of the program that allows veterans to utilize other medical facilities if timely VA care isn’t available. Heinrich recently co-sponsored the Veterans First Act to significantly improve accountability at the VA and to enhance veterans’ benefits and services.
Shipley said one of the concerns brought up was medication prescribed for veterans. He said if the medication treatment does not need to begin immediately, a veteran can fax the prescription to the VA and the prescription will be mailed within 48 hours.
Shipley said if the medication treatment needs to be started immediately, a veteran could purchase a 14-day supply of the medication from a pharmacy. He said the veteran then could submit a form to the VA for the rest of the prescription and would be reimbursed for the purchase of the medicine.
“I have been seeing a local provider for my knee and have been referred to a specialist, though the cost to travel to that specialist is a problem,” said John Bagley, local veteran.
Bagley said there is no local specialist for him to receive the treatment he needs for his knee. He said travel time to a see a physician is another concern due to the out of pocket expense for the trip.
One of the biggest issues veterans have today is finding transportation to get from where they live to the services they needs, said Mitchell Lawrence, health care program manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mitchell said a transportation summit is being planned to bring together all the agencies that have a stake in transporting the veterans to services they need. He said there are a lot of different agencies that have transportation for veterans to get VA services. The problem is that these multiple agencies are not communicating with one another, Mitchell added.
Mitchell said a veteran might have an appointment, but the pertinent agency might be unable to provide transportation. A veteran should have to contact only one entity to receive transportation, Mitchell said. He said once this is established, the VA can look into addressing transportation deficiency in certain states.
“It is hard to approach legislators for money to address the coverage gaps for veterans’ transportation when we can’t even verify the gaps,” Mitchell said.
The New Mexico Rural Veterans Coordinating Program also is seeking ways to assist in improving veterans’ health care services, according to John Griego, the program’s coordinator.
Griego said Congress asked the VA to assess the needs of veterans in all the rural states. Lawmakers created a grant and New Mexico qualified for additional money.
Griego said the RVCP goes out to the rural areas to talk with veterans about their needs and concerns including transportation and health care services, adding that RVCP reaches out to those in rural communities, seeking to assess veterans’ specific needs.
“One of the main things veterans can do to assist the RVCP is to fill out these forms,” Griego said of the outreach effort, which includes intake forms given to veterans.
Griego said the data collected from the forms are taken to Congress, where lawmakers will determine if rural New Mexico communities need more service. He said the data that they collect are vital and many veterans may be hesitant to fill out the form because it is lengthy. It will benefit New Mexico for more veterans to fill out the form.
Griego said for more information veterans can contact Sarah Bustos in Las Vegas at 505-796-2109.
“Having all of these providers and agencies come to Tucumcari and speak with the veterans is greatly appreciated,” said Post 2528 commander Richard Martinez, who explained that the information provided an opportunity for veterans to learn about the benefits available to them.
“Having Sen. Heinrich come to visit and then set up this information session means a lot to the local veterans,” Martinez said. “Having events like this helps to ensure veterans get access to the services they need while also showing the higher-ups do care about them and their families.”