By Carl Young
Something needs to be done soon for local veterans who once were able to get their healthcare needs taken care of in Humboldt County.
The Department of Veteran’s Affairs has recently come up with a way to reduce local fee basis care arrangements for veterans to a trickle.
The reason why? The VA doesn’t have enough money to maintain current fee basis services. Their response has been to point at one word in the VA Regulation Manual: "May." Working with the wide latitude that little three-lettered word provides, officials shrug their shoulders and talk about funding problems.
The bottom line is money. As the VA struggles with funding losses, the Bush administration and its political puppets in the VA keep slashing funding while trying to fool the people with propaganda.
To make matters worse, the lucky veteran that does get authorization for health care here is faced with another problem. Because payment is often slow to local providers, and there have been some cases of no payments at all, they are becoming fewer all the time.
Locally we have the Eureka Veterans Clinic, which despite it’s limitations, is providing some basic health care that veterans didn’t have here a couple of decades ago. When a veteran’s needs are more than the clinic can provide they apply for a local fee basis care arrangement, with local providers.
The process starts when the veteran’s doctor says they need a service that the clinic doesn’t provide.
Only those veterans that meet a very stringent criterion "may" be granted authorization to see a local provider. This referral process goes from Eureka to San Francisco where some authorization clerk there either gives their blessings, or they turn their thumbs down (excluding emergencies). There is no official rejection sent to the veteran needing the care, they must know to manage their own care, which means seeking assistance from Eureka VA’s Social worker, their primary care provider or Congressman Thompson’s’ office. After some time the veteran may receive the bad news, and places allot of frustration for all concerned.
Veterans who have been getting fee basis care for years locally are now being told they have to go south for treatments. How is the VA pulling this off, you may wonder? One tactic is telling veterans they have to go to a veteran’s hospital irregardless if it’s a hardship because of distance or other reasons.
The problem is the VA is no longer playing by its’ own rule book where there is a clause for qualifying for local care if the distance is too great. To further confuse the issue, no one seems to know how far is too far.
After talking with a supervisor in San Francisco I was informed that the operational word "may" applies when it comes to deciding if the veteran gets local health care, or if they have to travel.
How arbitrary is that? I was also informed that the VA is a health plan, not insurance! What the heck does that mean? Semantics can be sneaky when you’re talking about accountability with the VA.
What I’m hearing is that veterans are now at the mercy of nameless VA authorization clerks and an inadequate budget who decides a veteran’s case based upon their own individual interpretation of the manual and the status of funding. It’s apparent that we need to fix Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations Section 17.52 (a) to state that the VA "shall," and not "may," authorize fee basis requests.
As more veterans in Humboldt County find themselves faced with the long drive to Ft. Miley to get health care, they are also faced with new challenges like being self-employed and not being able to afford missing a day of work. At which time they can decide if they are able to travel over two hundred fifty miles, and in most cases spend the day and half getting their necessary care, at Ft. Miley.
It’s not the veteran’s fault that the VA is not getting the funding it needs. Yet, it’s the veterans who suffer while politicians play games. Now’s the time for Congressman Thompson to step up and to push for legislation to fix the weasel-wording in Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
As you read this there are veterans around you being denied local health care - even though they meet the stringent requirements of the VA. It’s all about money. Now, let’s make it about the veterans in our community.
I urge you, your friends and family, to contact Congressman Thompson’s office and tell him what you think about removing the "maybe" in the treatment for our veterans. New priorities need to come out for a full funding process that assures continuation of all programs for veterans that have earned them.
And to make matters worse the Medicare payment rate to physicians is being reduced by 10.6% in July, doctors will be forced to accept less money for medical procedures or opt out all together. In the past these reductions have caused doctors to turn away Medicare, veterans under the "fee for services” program, and active duty military (including their families and retirees) using their TRICARE benefits. Without action from the Senate more doctors will turn us away.
I leave you with this one final thought: what would you do if your health care depended upon one little ambiguous word that was interrupted by someone whose been told to cut back on health care services because of money, ?
Carl Young is the past-President of the Humboldt Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org