Local veterans discuss long health care waits with Larsen

A federal program to prevent veterans from long wait times at health care facilities doesn’t seem to be working.

“I had some hand surgery over there, and it took quite a while to get it authorized, about eight months,” said retired veteran Peter DeLorenzi about a procedure at San Juan Island’s Peace Island Medical Center.

DeLorenzi and about three other veterans spoke up about health care at a veterans forum in Friday Harbor, hosted by the district’s U.S. Congress Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) on Sunday, Oct. 15.

The Veterans Choice Program allows patients, who do not live within driving distance of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, to receive the same care at nearby facilities.

Larsen commended changes to the 2014 legislation, which originally measured the 40-mile distance in a straight line.

“We quickly found out what a terrible marker that was,” said Larsen. “We have islands, like the San Juan Islands; you might be 40 miles swimming distance, but not 40 miles driving.”

Despite these changes, DeLorenzi explained there are extended wait times to be covered for procedures, or even assigned primary care physicians.

“There’s a lag between the time you say ‘I need to see a doctor’ and the time they tell you you can see a doctor,” he said.

The program covers emergency room visits, but some injuries, like a sprained wrist, require an appointment within a few days, not weeks, or even months.

According to a 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, it took between 22 and 71 days for 120 newly enrolled veterans to be scheduled with primary care physicians. The program’s policy, stated the report, is to contact them with five days of enrollment.

Sefarian Butler, who works with veterans at the state’s career center, told forum attendees that once patients receive referrals for primary care physicians, the lag disappears.

“Usually they don’t provide you with one referral, they provide you with multiples of six to eight,” he said. “As long as you have that referral, you can see that provider as many times as necessary through the length of those referrals.”

Yet, there isn’t just a lag in appointments, but billing as well. Once DeLorenzi received his carpal tunnel surgery, he — not his insurance — was charged $700 for anesthesia.

“Was I supposed to do this without anesthesia? I was a Marine,” he said.

In March 2016, the VA opened a call center to help veterans with bad credit thanks to delayed or inaccurate billing through the Veterans Choice Program.

DeLorenzi, however, just decided to pay the bill out of pocket, instead of going through, what he called, a “confusing system.”

He and retired Staff Sergeant Shannon Plummer serve as Veterans Service Officers to help locals submit claims to the VA.

Plummer told attendees that government bureaucracy forces patients to take it upon themselves to communicate between the system’s two sides: TriWest, the VA insurance for retired veterans and TRICARE, the regional company which handles the First Choice Program. The similarity in names, he admitted, adds to the confusion.

“It’s a pain in the butt, but it’s the best you’ve got right now,” he said.

To speak with local VSOs, contact the Friday Harbor American Legion Post 163 at 360-378-5705.

To locate a state career center representative who works with veterans, contact the local Northwest Workforce Council representative Minnie Knych at 360-378-4662.

Since 2015, staff from Larsen’s office reported they have helped 326 veterans with casework and saved veterans over $260,000 in benefits. This was Larsen’s 58th veterans forum.

San Juan County Veterans By the Numbers

Figures were gathered from the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs and WorkSourceWA.

12% of county’s workforce are veterans.

1,491 veterans in the county, 100 of which are women.

70, between the ages of 17 and 44.

296, between the ages of 45 and 64.

959, between the ages of 64 and 84.

166, over age 85.