Martin Kidston

At a town hall meeting held by the Montana VA Health Care System two weeks ago, a man asked the state's acting VA director about a law passed in November that allows veterans to be treated at non-VA facilities.

The Choice Act, co-authored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., permits veterans to receive care at a non-VA clinic if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility. As written, that 40-mile stipulation was defined “as the crow flies" and not necessarily the driving distance, which can often be much further in a state like Montana.

At the meeting, acting state VA director John Ginnity suggested a fix was in the works. He was right.

This past week, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Tester announced a solution when they joined Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and a host of others in introducing the Veterans Access to Community Care Act.

The act fixes that “as the crow flies” loophole by allowing local care if a veteran lives more than 40 miles “driving distance” from the closest VA facility.

Such are the nuances of federal legislation.

For non-veterans, visiting the doctor seldom requires a trip out of town, but for veterans living in rural areas of Montana, receiving VA care often requires a long-distance trip to the nearest VA facility.

In western Montana, that clinic is in Missoula. So if you’re a veteran living in Mineral, Sanders or Granite counties, making such a trip could seem particularly long, especially in the winter when travel is less than ideal.

“Thousands of Montana veterans live hundreds of miles away from their closest VA health-care facility,” Daines said. “This bill ensures that the men and women who have served our nation have local access to the health-care resources they need.”

Most vets would agree and are thankful for the legislative efforts of Tester and Daines. They would also agree that the Choice Act – and the pending Veterans Access to Community Care Act – were well-intended.

But as things often go, a breakdown in communication between the local, state and federal agencies responsible for carrying out the legislation dropped the ball by either not paying attention to the requirements of the act, or not passing those requirements on to providers.

Last week, veterans looking to the Mineral County Regional Health Center for local care under the Choice Act learned they would have to wait 90 more days before they could stay home for treatment. In other words, the original act passed last November still means little for veterans living in Mineral County.

Whether the Mineral County Regional Health Center dropped the ball and didn’t register to provide VA Care as was required, or whether Health Net – the VA’s third-party administrator – failed to inform the hospital remains a point of contention. It’s also possible that the burden fell upon the Montana VA to spread the word.

Either way, Mineral County vets find themselves on the short end of the stick, unable to utilize their Choice Cards and take advantage of the law’s good intentions.

While this will likely be resolved in a matter of months, I suppose it would be wise for the state to make the requirements of new veteran legislation clear, and for local providers who treat veterans to pay a little more attention when new laws are passed, especially those intended to benefit their patients.

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