Kay Lynn Roberts-McMurray
A large crowd gathered for a meeting to discuss veteran’s healthcare options in Ely.

By KayLynn Roberts-McMurray 

The Ely Times

More than 250 veterans, their spouses, friends and elected officials in the community came out to the Veterans Town Hall meeting on Monday, April 3.

There was not enough room for all attendees. People stood, many had to stand out in the lobby area of the aquatic center trying to hear what the representatives from the VA we’re saying.

It became very clear that the turnout of veterans was highly underestimated by the VA.

The meeting had originally been scheduled to be held at the Bristlecone Convention Center, where this type of crowd would have been accommodated with ample amount of seating and microphone system so that everyone attending could of heard all of the pertinent information that was being give out. But it was cancelled at the last minute and scheduled for the Aquatic Center.

Shella Stovall, acting medical center director at the VA Salt Lake Heath Care System, welcomed the crowd, and spoke about the contract with Choice.

“We are trying to make this transition as smooth as possible, I’d like to give the choice specialist a chance to answer questions that you have.”

There was a particular issue with veterans who only had a PO box number or HC box number and the Choice Program requires a physical address.

Christopher Scott, public affairs specialist for the VA Health said “We know that 55 of you in the system have issues, because all you have is a PO box. that is an issue that we are trying to work with, and you can help us by identifying us with who you may be and allowing us to get.”

But, when vets started identifying themselves, one of the Choice reps said there was nothing that could be done unless they had a physical address, and yet another representative was telling them that he could override the system, it seemed like the information was very conflicting and confusing.

Dr. Nancy Baker, who practices at the William Bee Ririe Hospital and Rural Health Clinic, has many veterans as patients.

She stepped up to the front to express her discord with the VA and the Choice Program. Baker said “I had a veteran come in to see me today for the Choice program, he was told we have set it up, and you will be able to see your doctor today, that patient came and is not sure if his visit to me will be paid for today, I do not personally care if I’m paid, but the patient cares because two years ago he had pneumonia, I sent him over as a primary care doctor to the emergency room to be evaluated and now he’s being told that no payments have made for his ER visit, and now this vet is looking at 10 years of payments to the hospital for this bill.”

Baker said she has many questions, “I want to know why our Vets are being put last in this country? This is not a choice program, this is a terrible program. If this hospital was guaranteed an actual contract through September through the pilot program why are we having the rug pulled out from under us by this Choice program that is supposed to expire in August? “

How did all this begin? In 2015, the VA was recovering from a national controversy that included allegations of massive fraud and the deaths of possibly hundreds of veterans because of delayed treatment at VA hospitals throughout the country.

The controversy led in 2014 to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the passage of a $16.3 million reform measure.  In August of 2015, former President, Barack Obama signed into law the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.

This act required the VA to expand the options of veterans to seek health care outside the VA for as long as three years.  Veterans qualify for health care outside the VA if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or if their wait time exceeds 30 days at the VA.

A vet standing, spoke of his issues with the program. The disabled vet lives in Preston, which is about 30 miles from Ely. He was having a medical issue, so he called for an ambulance, they transported him to the hospital, he was then life lighted out to Salt Lake City, Utah for treatment.

He has been receiving bills from all of the companies, the ambulance, the flight for life, the hospital, and was told that they would cover him 100 percent. A few days ago the vet received a bill telling him because it was not pre-approved the V.A. would not cover the bills. How can you pre-approve an emergency?

There really was no explanation given as to why the contract was ending, and why Choice was being selected. Many questions were being asked and there was so much talking between Veterans, and representatives trying to help answer individual questions, making it appear that the meeting was not very organized.

Senator Dean Heller and Congressman Ruben Kihuen both had representatives from their office present at the meeting. Kihuen issued the following statement “Veterans fought for our country — they shouldn’t have to fight to guarantee their access to care. Veterans in Ely do not have the luxury of traveling hundreds of miles to get VA assistance.

“Last night’s town hall regarding the Ely Community Clinic left us with more questions than answers. The message from Veterans was clear — ‘protect our care, and tread carefully when making changes to our benefits.’ We’ve already asked enough of these men and women, asking them to sacrifice more just to get the care they deserve is unacceptable.”

Earlier in the meeting there was a veteran who spoke about contacting Choice. He mentioned that he had chronic heart failure, and was told by a Choice representative it would take six months before he could be seen by a cardiologist. His doctor, Baker, had told him she could not get the work up completed through William Bee Ririe Hospital. As the vet left the meeting, he started having heart pains, and trouble breathing, 911 was called, and the veteran was transported by ambulance to the Emergency Room. Many wondered, will the vet receive a bill since he didn’t get this pre-approved?