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Vets say they’re frustrated by VA’s Choice program

Overall, vets say they receive quality care

A veteran poses a question to officials at local VA Town Hall meeting on Thursday, Jan. 12.

Photo by Nanci Hutson.

A veteran poses a question to officials at local VA Town Hall meeting on Thursday, Jan. 12.

PRESCOTT — Medical care at the local VA is considered by many local veterans to be of the highest caliber, but the Choice program intended to allow veterans to see community specialists is a lesson in frustration, according to several local veterans.

One local veteran who attended a quarterly veteran town hall meeting at the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System on Thursday, Jan. 12, cited a friend’s wait for more than five months for an ophthalmologist appointment. He pondered whether his friend will be forced to “go blind” before he gets care promised to him by the nation he honorably served.

Indeed, most of the complaints during the open forum of the meeting were aimed at the Choice program. The VA needs to untangle its own bureaucracy to ensure it does what it promised, they said.

U.S. Marine Greg Arthur said his first experience with the Choice program for eye surgery was impressive. The second time, when he suffered a jaw infection that impacted his teeth, he became caught in a confusing tug-of-war between his VA medical team and the required care provider. He quickly determined that there was a need for systemic change within the VA health system to rectify these issues.

In addition, Arthur voiced dismay over the VA’s system of flagging files of veteran patients they determine to be problem clients. He said he understands the need to ensure proper conduct between staff and patients, but a disgusted veteran should not be threatened with a “flagged” file that automatically leads to staff distrust, and sometimes, even disrespect, to that veteran.

“We’re pissed off, and we have a good right to be,” Arthur said, noting “flagging files” may incite a situation rather than eliminate it.

Meeting moderator Nurse Executive Kerri Wilhoite explained that “flagging” occurs after a review by a disruptive behavior committee and there is an appeal process. She assured administrators are working internally to address these issues so as to protect all involved.

Arthur said this was the first time he has attended one of these group meetings, and though he believes the VA offers exemplary medical care from some of the “best doctors and nurses” he has encountered since he started getting VA care in 1972 this facility cannot operate in a vacuum. This VA has a responsibility to work within the greater VA system to find solutions to issues with Choice and other care issues that impact its veterans, and address staff that seem insensitive to veteran concerns.

Interim Medical Director Dr. M. Keith Piatt said the Choice program has proved a constant source of concern for veterans across northern Arizona and elsewhere. The VA’s Choice program provider, TriWest Health Care Alliance, is working to correct issues with delays and billing issues. TriWest official Pat Shipley explained the challenge has been the great demand for community specialists and the timely reimbursement to participating doctors.

In February, the VA will be assigned three TriWest employees whose sole duty will be to work with veterans to assure timely appointments and reimbursements.

Veteran Bill Moody, who asked why the VA is not offering the higher-dose flu vaccine, said he appreciated the town hall forum as a means to allow veterans to “blow off steam” but hopes administrators then take action to resolve the complaints.

Piatt assured local VA leaders wants to hear from its constituents, and will convey concerns to the powers that be in the federal system to make improvements, be it with Choice or some other health or benefit issues. He, too, said the VA depends on its veterans to help them connect with other community resources that can bolster what can be offered to enhance the lives of all local veterans.

“All of us working together strengthen what we can do for veterans,” Piatt concluded.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333, ext. 2041.