We continue our series “Veterans Choice: Making It Work," with a look at Veterans Choice at the local level.
Depending on where they live, veterans in northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin going to a VA hospital will end up either at Hines Hospital in Chicago, Middleton Memorial Hospital in Madison, or the Iowa City Veterans Administration Medical Center.
For most veterans, though, the first point of contact with the VA begins at their county's Veterans Assistance Commission. These operate under the umbrella of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and are staffed by Veterans Service Officers, or VSOs -- themselves veterans and users of the VA.
Jeff Willis is a veteran of the first Gulf War. As supervisor for northern Illinois, he oversees and coordinates the Veterans Assistance Commissions in the region.
Willis said the role of a VSO is to help veterans and their families obtain any and all benefits. Or, as he put it, “We empower them to succeed” in that process.
Getting those benefits means first getting into the system. Discharge documents detailing the veteran’s service, including information necessary to classify a condition or injury as service-related, must be processed and sent on to the VA. Willis said that, at least in the area he covers, the turnaround is around two weeks before that first appointment with a VA doctor can be set up. He said that’s much better than it was five or six years ago, when it could take six months for an initial visit.
Still, time and distance continue to be issues for veterans seeking health care, and that’s where the Choice program comes in. Willis feels it is helping – at least, it did for him.
Willis lives in Freeport and uses a VA Clinic in town, but he needed an outpatient procedure. That would ordinarily require a trip to Middleton Memorial, the VA Hospital in Madison -- an hour and a half each way. So he went with the Veteran's Choice program.
"I’m going to be straight up with you, sir: It was quite impressive," Willis said. "They had me in and out locally in the Freeport hospital, even before my scheduled appointment in Madison.”
But it varies. Willis has heard different experiences with Choice, and some have not been as happy as his.
LaSalle County’s VSO is Steven Kreitzer, an Iraq War veteran who previously advocated for vets while in the student veterans group at Northern Illinois University. Kreitzer said helping veterans avoid that long trip to Chicago for health care is a good idea; but, in practice, there have been a lot of issues.
“The contractor’s going to try to get the veteran with the specialist within 30 days,” Kreitzer said, "but I always tell the veteran to keep your appointment at Hines -- even if its two months out -- because sometimes that may be faster than with the Choice program."
Kreitzer tries to help, but he wouldn’t have minded some training on Choice.
”We’ve gotten the notice that the program’s available, and the times frames, which pretty much the general public has," he said, "but as far as the ins and outs on the program, so we’ve been basically figuring it out as we go."
Tammy Anderson is the VSO for DeKalb County. She agreed that the Choice program, and its rollout, have had shortcomings. She’s pretty sure others think so, too.
"If, whenever we go to our training and the training people are talking about it and they give us an 800-number for the billing problems for the Choice program, then that kind of lets you know that everybody’s having a problem with it," Anderson said.
Personally, she doesn’t think it's a good program as it stands, and it’s making her work as a VSO harder.
"We have to know how to help the veteran, because the VA has been making things so impossible that you get frustrated enough that you give up, and you’ll pay whatever you need to pay or just go away" she said. "We need to know what’s going to be the best way to get around so that the veteran isn’t stuck with a bill that they shouldn’t have been paying in the first place."
Jim Gorman says it’s not all the VA’s -- or the contractor’s -- fault.
A Vietnam War veteran, Gorman is the assistant superintendent of the Lee County Veterans Assistance Commission. He, too, has seen a variety of reactions to the program.
“Some people like Vets Choice, some people think it’s a disaster" he said. "Most of the guys that I see in this office that have used Vets Choice think it’s the greatest thing in the world."
And he has his own positive experience with Choice that -- like Willis's experience -- highlighted a benefit of the program for him.
“I recently went to my primary care doctor at the Sterling Clinic and she asked me about my eyes," he said. "I’m diabetic, so I have to get my eyes checked every year. Well, Iowa City [VA Medical Center] says I only have to have them checked every two years. She point-blank asked me, ‘Do you want to see a local optometrist here in Sterling or Dixon? I’ll get you set up for that.’”
Gorman said the big problems with the Choice program started with how it was communicated to veterans.
"All veterans were mailed a letter two years ago, two and half years ago," Gorman said."When they come in, my first question is, 'Have you signed up for Vet’s Choice?' Ninety percent of the vets that I talk to coming in to this office say, ‘Well, I got a letter, I didn’t know what it was, so I threw the letter away.’ You know, they think it’s junk mail. So, it’s a constant, constant education process.
But, he said, the more they find out, the more they are at ease with it and how it can be a benefit.
Gorman said the various VSOs maintain an informal network to help with Choice and other issues.
“I talk to different commission superintendents and learn different things," Gorman says, "Of course, we email back and forth and stuff like that. Mr. Kreitzer down in LaSalle County, I get an email from him almost once a week on different things, so the superintendents kind of keep up on what’s going on.”
Right now, Congress and the VA are looking to improve the Choice program. The VSOs just hope they will be better informed as changes are made. Then they can help make the program work better for the veterans they serve.