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John Ginnity

Johnny Ginnity

The Mineral County Regional Health Center said it will take 90 days to receive approval from the VA Montana Health Care System’s third-party administrator before it can treat veterans under the new Choice Program.

Passed in November, the Choice Act allows veterans enrolled with the VA to receive non-VA care if geography poses a significant travel hardship, or if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest Veterans Affairs facility.

Superior lies 70 miles west of the nearest VA clinic in Missoula, but Mineral County vets aren’t yet permitted to use their Choice Card in Superior, according to Monte Turner, the outreach director for the local clinic.

“We’ve got 11 or 12 percent of our population here that are veterans,” said Turner. “They want to come here and they’ve got their Choice Card, but they can’t use it because we’re not certified by the VA.”

Turner said the hospital was told by Health Net – the VA’s third-party administrator – that it would take 90 days to review and approve the clinic’s two-page application.

He said the health center wasn’t aware that the paperwork was necessary when the Choice Program was enacted by Congress.

“Vets have received their Choice Card and are calling here to make appointments because they were told they could,” Turner said. “But we’re not ‘VA certified’ and it’s going to take another 90 days for someone to do that with the couple of pages of paperwork we submitted.”

Randy Martin, spokesman for VA Montana, said the agency has contacted Health Net to expedite the process. He said the VA is contractually bound to the third-party administrator and is limited by what Health Net does with provider applications.

“We’re expressing our concerns back to the third-party administrator,” Martin said Wednesday. “VA has a contract in place with Health Net, which is responsible for the whole Choice Program. We’re legally bound to that contract, so it’s really outside our abilities to negotiate with a provider directly.”

Martin said VA Montana is concerned about the delay and the 90 days it will take Health Net to review the Mineral County health center’s application.

“I reached out to Health Net this morning myself,” Martin said. “The Choice Card gives veterans the information and number to call to contact Health Net, and they make arrangements for the veteran to find the provider to assist them.”

While Turner said the Mineral County health center was caught off guard, Martin said the information has been in the public domain since Congress passed the Choice Act last November.

“The providers were informed and it’s been public knowledge how to contact the third-party administrator so they could become part of the program,” Martin said. “That’s been in the public domain.”

Tuner said the health center has submitted its paperwork, though Mineral County vets will have to travel to Missoula for care until Health Net processes the application.

“They have to drive 70 miles in the winter on icy roads for care,” he said. “It seems like VA Montana is washing its hands of this.”

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