Speaking to military veterans in Statesboro, Congressman Rick Allen, R-Georgia 12th, said that veterans should receive a card good for immediate, government-funded medical care with any physician. He agreed with veterans who say that the current Veterans Choice Program doesn’t work.
About 40 area residents, most of them veterans, attended the Veterans Town Hall meeting that Allen and staff members held Wednesday at American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90. After some opening remarks, Allen answered questions submitted on cards. Health care provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, system was the dominant topic.
“Just know that in my opinion, the answer to a lot of these questions you’re going to ask is this: For health care, you folks need a card that you can take to any doctor in this country and get immediate help. Period,” Allen said.
Brief applause followed.
“I need your help to get that done,” Allen continued. “We need the veterans to all agree on that, because there’s disagreement.”
He said he understands this because some veterans are afraid that such a program would threaten the VA medical system. But his desire, he said, is to strengthen the VA in its purpose of serving veterans.
“Well, obviously it would be reduced in size because, frankly, this would be competition to the VA, and folks, the only way in my life that I’ve learned to improve services is competition,” Allen said. “They have no competition. If you have no competition, why are you going to go out of your way to take care of anybody? Competition is what has made America great.”
The first question Allen addressed was about a topic he said he has heard often. “What can we do to improve the Veterans Choice Program? My experience with it thus far hasn’t been a good one at all,” a veteran had written.
“The Veterans Choice Program is a complete failure,” Allen said, and this drew another smattering of applause. “I mean I’ve never heard… Has anybody had a good experience with it?”
“Never,” said one veteran. “Yeah,” another added in agreement.
“It doesn’t work at all,” said William Guill, 46, who submitted the question.
Created under the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, the Veterans Choice Program is intended to allow veterans who already are VA system participants to use private medical providers at VA expense, but on a more limited basis than the card system Allen suggests. To qualify for Veterans Choice, a veteran must face a wait of more than 30 days for VA medical care or live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or face other excessive travel burdens.
But Guill described frustrations he encountered with Veterans Choice greater than any he has encountered with the VA medical system itself. Guill, who served two tours of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the North Carolina Army National Guard, is classified as a disabled veteran because of a back injury and other medical problems. He hurt his back when he fell during a quick reaction drill at an air base in Jordan in 2003.
Guill recently became a Statesboro resident after first moving from North Carolina to Savannah.
The VA has no chiropractors anywhere, and he needed to see one for his back problem, Guill said. So, a year ago or more, his VA primary care physician in Savannah authorized him to receive outside care, and Guill signed up for Veterans Choice and was approved and given a phone number to call.
His first call resulted in his having to go through another sign-up process. Someone with Veterans Choice then called him August or September and said she had to find out what chiropractors were available in Savannah. When he heard nothing and called again “they put me on hold and basically hung up on me,” Guill said in a Thursday interview.
In December, another woman from VA Choice called and promised to call back with an appointment, but he hasn’t heard anything since, he said.
Meanwhile, when Guill travelled to Charleston, S.C., to see a VA neurologist, he was told that the Veterans Choice Program had cancelled his appointment at the VA center and made him an appointment with an outside specialist, he said.
“The system doesn’t work. You call into the system and they don’t know who you are,” Guill told Allen.
“It’s, again, the bureaucrats in the VA who want to run that program and they can’t do it from Washington, and that’s why I’ve said that what you need is a card that you can take to your chiropractor and get the treatment that you need, and I believe that will save us millions of dollars,” Allen said.
Guill called the proposed card system “a great idea” that “gives us the ability to go seek care when we need it.” But one challenge he sees is that private medical providers currently have no access to VA medical records.
Help for homeless
Allen also heard from people who are trying to help homeless veterans.
John C. Littles described efforts to find homeless veterans in Hinesville this week and asked for help from Statesboro residents in finding them here. Littles, veterans chair for the Georgia NAACP, is also working on his own with efforts to identify these veterans, in cooperation with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
“I’m a veteran also, and we’re all concerned about the homeless veterans out here, getting them off the street, so I kind of partnership, myself, with these other organizations out here to help,” Littles said.
Several veterans told Allen about specific problems getting VA services, and some also about problems dealing with the Social Security Administration other agencies. Members of his district staff, including field representative Kelly O’Neal and constituent services and military liaison Paul Lynch, veterans themselves, collected case numbers and contact information to follow up with these veterans.
“Let us fight for you,” Allen said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.