VA moves forward on Choice Program fixes

The Department of Veterans Affairs in Alaska is moving forward on a plan to fix bugs in the program set up by the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, though veterans continue to cite issues with the program’s implementation.

During a listening session on Thursday at Kenai Peninsula College, more than 30 veterans turned out to hear an update on the Choice Program, as it’s commonly referred to, from Alaska VA staff.

Personnel are poised to move into the third phase in a plan to correct parts of the program that are making it more difficult for veterans to reap its benefits. Implemented in 2014 and intended to give veterans in rural areas easier access to services by allowing them to work through local providers, the Choice Program has been plagued with issues such as lack of communication between the program and the Alaska VA, longer wait times for veterans and delays in reimbursing local providers, according to veterans who testified over a series of listening sessions. To tackle the problems, The Alaska VA embarked on a two-phase plan, the first phase of which involved creating a remote presence by staff from TriWest Healthcare Alliance, an Arizona-based provider tasked with delivering Choice Program services, in Alaska VA facilities. Shawn Bransky, associate director of the Alaska VA, said the second phase of getting TriWest staff into the state and on the ground was not implemented on time.

“We initially had planned to get the staff in place I think by … November,” Bransky said. “When we change or do things within the contract, because it’s a national contract … any changes have to worked back through contracting with the vendor, so there was a little bit of a delay much beyond what we thought.”

There is now a TriWest staff member based in Fairbanks and another based on the Kenai Peninsula who handles other parts of the state, said Cindy Massey, who helps manage the Choice Program.

“The important thing is now that the staff actually is in place here,” Bransky said.

The TriWest staff members are here to handle provider and other issues so that they are not routed to out-of-state TriWest staff over the phone, Massey said.

“They’re doing a real good job meeting with the providers in town,” she said.

With the second phase in the plan to fix the Choice Program complete, Bransky said the Alaska VA is looking toward a larger pilot program, which Alaska will be the first to implement, that will further address issues like scheduling. He said the department is hoping to launch that phase in the next month or two.

“What that’ll entail is some enhancements to making additional permits for scheduling for appointments for veterans,” Bransky said, adding that he could not go into any more detail.

“It’s a continuation of simplifying the program and streamlining,” Massey added.

Another change to the Choice Program is that authorizations for care and services have been extended to be valid for up to a year, Bransky said.

“In the past, we were limited to doing an authorization for 60 days,” he said. “And really what that meant was, you know, you’d send someone out to the community, their authorization expired in 60 days, and then if they (the veteran) required additional care, the vendor had to come back or the veteran had to come back and request additional time on that.”

One problem cited in the past by providers is that they are having a hard time getting paid back by the Choice Program for services they gave to veterans.

“Sometimes the billing was delayed because part of the Choice Program was written so that the bill could not be paid unless the medical documentation was there as well,” Massey said.

This is no longer the case, so bills will be able to be paid before documentation is submitted, which should help solve the issue of bills getting forwarded to veterans themselves, she said.

The veterans gathered at Thursday’s listening session cited long wait times to schedule medical appointments as a continuing problem. Joe Bazan, a Sterling resident who served in the Marine Corps, said it would be easier if Choice Program staff allowed local hospitals to schedule appointments with veterans rather than trying to do it over the phone.

“Those folks at the hospital will call me, and I know those people,” Bazan said. “So we go round and round and here it is three weeks of just waiting … that Choice Program, I don’t want to use any Marine Corps language, but it is not too good for us guys up here in Alaska.”

Other veterans in attendance cited problems getting calls back from Choice Program staff and lost medical records as ongoing frustrations.

Bransky said Alaska VA staff will make another round of trips for listening sessions once the next pilot program is in place.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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