AP – Senate veterans’ committee hears health care concerns among Mont. Veterans

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Department of Veterans Affairs needs to do a better job communicating with private medical providers, informing veterans of what services are available, and pay more attention to women’s health care needs as more women have been joining the military, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester says.

The Billings Gazette reports (http://bit.ly/JEf6jK) the Montana Democrat made the comments Saturday during a U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing on health care for rural veterans that he hosted.

“I think we need to do a better job of communicating between the VA and private providers,” he said during the hearing that went over two hours. “I think we need to do a better job having the VA communicate to veterans the services that are out there.”

People who spoke at the hearing also cited a lack of coordinated electronic medical records, difficulty getting timely appointments, long drives, and a shortage of specialty physicians.

Casey Elder, a 27-year-old Purple Heart recipient, told Tester she asked to have a cervical biopsy to check for cancer done in Billings by a female doctor. But the agency told her she’d have to travel to Helena to see a male doctor and wait three months.

“None of this was sufficient, given the threat of cancer,” said Elder, now a full-time student at Montana State University Billings. “I was seen by a local female doctor less than 10 days later and paid for the procedure with $300 out of my own pocket, funds that are scarcely available to full-time students.”

Elder, injured when insurgents set off an improvised explosive device during the last month of her deployment in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, was among a number of people who also mentioned the problems of having to make long trips to Fort Harrison in Helena to see a doctor.

“Due to the nature of having a traumatic brain injury, driving for more than an hour or two at a time can be incredibly taxing and exhausting for me,” she said.

But she also said she has saved hours of travel by using a system called Telehealth through the VA, which allows her to meet with her Helena doctor online.

The chairman of the VA’s Veterans Rural Health Advisory Committee, James Ahrens, said some veterans never even enroll in the system.

“So people are lost,” he said. “I have a friend who lives next door to me who has never been in the system. He was in the Korean War.”

Jeffrey Neuberger, associate chief of Patient Care Services for the VA Montana Health Care System, said the VA is trying to overcome the challenges posed by Montana’s large size.

He said a three-year pilot program called Access Received Close, which began in Billings in August 2011, allows eligible veterans to seek care from Humana network providers.

Dr. Mark Rumans is physician in chief at the Billings Clinic, which is part of the Access Received Close to Home program.

“Overwhelmingly we have seen vets who are grateful to get their needs met in the community,” he said.

Neuberger also said that the Telehealth program has helped many veterans avoid long trips to see a doctor.

“There are over 25 active Telehealth programs in place, making it one of the top performers in the VA,” he said.

Tester said Saturday’s meeting was one in a long series of meetings he’s held in Montana to hear from veterans and that have led to changes, including the opening of new clinics and vet centers, as well as the passage of the Veterans Health Care Improvement Act.

But he said more can be done.