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Veterans care a growing challenge, VA secretary says
Isakson chairs Senate committee on federal program at UNG Gainesville campus
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U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., speaks with attendees of an oversight field hearing Friday held by The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at the University of North Georgia Gainesville. Isakson chaired the hearing, which was held to examine the Department of Veterans Affairs’ implementation of the Veterans Choice Program. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Ed Dever says he’s having a hard time with the Veterans Choice Program.

A local veteran, who served from 1968-71 in the U.S. Army, Dever said he’s been trying to get a doctor’s appointment for months, but there’s a communication problem between his local Veterans Affairs and the clinic that is supposed to treat him.

He’s not alone. Others have questions and concerns about the federal choice program, many of whom showed up at the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Friday for an oversight field hearing, the third in a series regarding the Veterans Choice Program.

Aimed at examining the Veterans Choice Program’s efficiency, including quality and timeliness of care for veterans, the gathering brought nearly 200 to the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus in Oakwood.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to address many of the problems that have come to light since the program was implemented in November 2014.

The third in a series of oversight hearings on the program, Isakson questioned VA Secretary Robert McDonald on the VA’s implementation of the program, which allows veterans who meet certain criteria to receive health care outside the VA.

“Anytime you create a new entity you create new problems,” Isakson said. “We all know that the Veterans Choice Program was the right thing to do ... not to replace VA health care, but to enhance it.”

McDonald said, “keeping up with the growth (of veterans’ needs) hasn’t been easy.”

He said Georgia is one of the fastest growing areas in the country for veterans seeking VA care.

“This year, the Atlanta VA saw its numbers of patients grow 7.5 percent,” McDonald said. “And this is happening all around the country. The VA has seen demand increase this year and in past years as the Vietnam era cohort moves through the high-need, high-cost 50-65 age range.”

One of the most frustrating problems that’s come with that growth, McDonald said, is that “employees are in the position of having to do more and more, and unfortunately some have responded by doing things they shouldn’t have, losing sight of what the VA is all about.”

Passed by Congress, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 gave the VA 90 days to start the choice program. But nine months later, veterans are still reporting issues, Isakson said.

“We still have serious challenges,” McDonald said. “In a program as complex as this, making sure that 9.3 million veterans actually understand how to use the program has clearly been a challenge, and I think that we’ve tried ... but I know we need to do a better job.”

Isakson said he feels the solution is “a simpler system, where veterans have an easy way to access the information in terms of what their choices actually are. I’d love to see what we can do to improve these communications.”

Bob Sushka, a local man and Vietnam veteran, felt Friday’s event was “a good meeting. I learned a little about what’s going on with this.”

Fellow Vietnam era vet Dever said all he wants is just to be able to “get a handle on what’s going on . . .  because I need to get an appointment, and soon.”

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