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Las Vegas Valley vets may benefit from new VA access program

A Department of Veterans Affairs program launched last week will offer military veterans new options in accessing health care.

The Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act, or Mission Act, essentially expands on earlier legislation intended to cut down on wait times at VA medical facilities by allowing veterans to see private doctors in some circumstances.

“It was a temporary fix at that time to deal with wait times and scheduling issues,” Chuck Ramey, spokesman for the the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System in North Las Vegas, said at a town hall-style meeting last week in regards to a law passed in 2014. “The VA has been working with the community to provide community care since day one.”

Under the new program, which was launched Thursday, veterans can work with their VA health care provider or other agency staffers to see if they are eligible to receive care from local non-VA doctors.

One benefit is that veterans can go to urgent care clinics through the VA. To be eligible, a veteran must be enrolled in VA health care and have been seen by a VA doctor within the past 24 months. After three visits to urgent care, there is generally a $30 copay.

Eligible veterans can still choose to have the VA provide their care.

Eligibility criteria

To be eligible for community care, veterans must meet at least one of these criteria:

— Require a service not available at any nearby VA medical facility.

— Live in a U.S. state or territory without a full-service VA medical facility. This applies to veterans in Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire and the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

— Qualify under a “grandfather” provision related to distance from a VA facility under the 2014 legislation, the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act.

— Require care that the VA cannot furnish within designated access standards. The new standards allow veterans to schedule community care appointments if the VA cannot provide the service within a 30-minute average drive time and 20-day wait time for primary care, mental health and noninstitutional extend care services, or a 60-minute average drive time and 28-day wait time for specialty care.

— Get a referring clinician to agree it is in the veteran’s best medical interest to receive community care based on defined factors.

— Require a service that the VA cannot provide in a manner that complies with the agency’s standards for quality.

Veterans appreciate new option

Navy veteran Marty Aguiar, quartermaster at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10054 in Pahrump, said that while veterans in the rural area have been able to choose to see community doctors since 2014, many still choose to travel to the VA in North Las Vegas, more than 70 miles away.

“If they have to wait longer, they will to make sure their medical needs are being taken care of,” he said. “I’d rather go to the VA rather than a private practitioner because the VA has got all my records and it’s just easier for me to stick with the VA so they know what the heck is going on with me.”

But, he said, “We do have a lot of older people out here that require more medical and specialized care.”

Air Force veteran and Henderson resident Jerry Peterson, state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the new act is “a very positive step” that “gives you an option basically.”

Because Clark County has several clinics close to one another, he doesn’t see distance from veterans being an issue in urban areas, but he recognizes that it’s a big step for those in rural areas.

“Recently, the VA helped me find a surgeon for my cataracts because they said they could not take care of my issue, and it was pretty seamless,” he said. “The first appointment is always a wait, I had to wait almost four months for a private doctor, so I’m reluctant to throw stones at the VA for that.”

Dr. Ramu Komanduri, chief of staff at the VA facility in North Las Vegas, said the new act “offers many more opportunities for the veteran to make a choice.”

“You can still choose to wait two or three months in the community, even if the VA wait is only 35 days,” he said.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.

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