BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) -A health program that lets veterans seek outside help is facing backlash. Some veterans are receiving medical bills for thousands of dollars. The Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to take care of the bills. Our investigation finds a backlog of bureaucracy may be to blame.
It’s been a life of service for retired Marine Colonel Lee Busby. He's been on active duty a number of times over his more than 30-year military career.
"The longest, right after 9/11. Thought I was leaving for six months and came back about 10 years later,” Busby said.
Like many veterans, Busby uses the Tuscaloosa VA for medical care. He recently had an urgent need to see a dermatologist. He got a doctor’s approval to receive outside care through the Veterans Choice Program. Over 40 days went by and no one made the appointment. He then went back to the VA and had to stand in someone’s office to get the appointment made. Busby says the process of getting referred to an outside doctor is quick. It’s the in between time that is taking a while.
"It’s the lag time between then getting the nod that yeah we’ll refer you out and getting the appointment made with an outside provider and then the flip side of getting the billing straight so that the individual is not being billed for it but the VA is,” Busby said. That billing is costing some veterans thousands of dollars. One veteran sent us his recent UAB bill for a sleep study showing he owes over $4,700. He’s says the VA hasn’t reimbursed UAB yet. WBRC reporter Josh Gauntt recently posted about the Veterans Choice Program situation in the Facebook Group “Alabama Veteran” and continue to get comments from veterans who are having similar issues. In some cases, medical bills are being turned over to collections.
"The individuals are getting billed for it. They’re trying to refer to the VA. Physicians are filing collection notices and the person in the middle’s going, I wasn’t supposed to be paying for it,” Busby said.
"I continue to hear stories about the Veterans’ programs and the benefits that are somehow being fallen back on the veterans themselves and it shouldn't be,” U.S. Senator Doug Jones, (D) of Alabama said.
Senator Jones recently co-sponsored the VA Mission Act which is now law. The bill in part overhauls the Veteran's Choice Program. According the Military Times, the VA has paid fewer than 70% of its claims within 30 days which is leading to providers contacting veterans directly for payment.
"The Veterans Administration is this monstrosity of a bureaucracy. It’s the second largest department in the federal government. We’ve got to do a better job of getting a handle on making sure that we get these benefits paid to the providers so that the benefits flow back to the veterans,” Jones said.
Colonel Busby says there are a lot of things the VA does well. Over the years, he’s received excellent care from the VA. He believes the issues with the Choice program comes down to the number of people trying to use it.
"The concept is great. It’s the implementation that's getting run over by volume. If we would require all the VA administrators and all our Congressman to get their medical care at the VA, it will straighten out very quick,” Busby added.
In a statement, the VA says the MISSION Act will make things easier for veterans:
“VA understands the challenges associated with the Choice Program. That’s why the department worked with Congress to pass the MISSION Act, landmark legislation that will consolidate Choice and VA’s other community care efforts into a single program that is much easier to navigate for Veterans, families, VA employees and community providers.In the meantime, ensuring Choice Program providers are reimbursed for the care they provide to Veterans is a top priority. VA has improved its Choice claims processing timeliness substantially, processing error-free claims for the current fiscal year in an average of 33 days, with 96 percent of claims completed within 30 days.A encourages any Veterans experiencing community care reimbursement and billing issues to contact the Choice Program Support Line at (866) 606-8198 or the VA Adverse Credit Helpline at (877) 881-7618.”, Terrence Hayes, a VA spokesperson said.
You can find out more on the Choice program here.