A new system to serve the health needs of veterans takes effect Thursday. It’s called the VA MISSION Act. This law ends the program known as Veterans Choice, which aimed to create healthcare options for veterans in the private sector but was bogged down with bureaucratic problems. The MISSION Act aims to correct that with the new “Veterans Community Care Program.” NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Manchester VA Medical Center Director Al Montoya about how the program will work.
This new law spells out new criteria for eligibility for veterans. For New Hampshire veterans, the most relevant one is that veterans living in any state without a full-service VA hospital is therefore eligible, and New Hampshire is one of those states. So does that mean all New Hampshire veterans who are enrolled at the VA are eligible for MISSION Act care?
I would say for those veterans who are eligible for VA care would also be eligible, in most cases, to go out and use the MISSION Act and care out in the community. I think what's really exciting for Granite State veterans is that under the previous Choice legislation we had a carve out for veterans in the community because of, as you mentioned, not having a full-service hospital. So for us, our veterans should not feel much of a difference whatsoever in utilizing that component of the MISSION Act.
So in short, that means if a New Hampshire veteran, whether in Manchester or Hanover or Berlin, doesn't want to go to a VA facility, they don't have to. They could try to find a private doctor through the MISSION Act.
That is true for those that are eligible. I think over the last 18-20 months we've been working really hard at the Manchester VA to give Granite State veterans the reason to choose the Manchester VA.
Can I dig a little deeper on the eligibility question because you're saying, "Yes, if they're eligible." But what I read online is that they're automatically eligible because they are a New Hampshire veteran. If that is not the case, then what are some things that would make them ineligible for care under the MISSION Act?
I will tell you that eligibility is a little more complex for our veterans. So for veterans that have not ever signed up for care within the Department of Veterans Affairs, they would normally come in and sit down with an eligibility coordinator who would walk them through that to make sure they are eligible in general for VA care. So this, as I mentioned, is a very complex issue, one that we do have staff here to help them walk through that process. I think eligibility for the community care component then also depends on individual healthcare needs and circumstances. So if they're eligible for VA care, in most cases, they'll also be eligible for care in the community. But it's a conversation best had with our eligibility coordinator to make sure.
Which private doctors will veterans be able to see through the program?
We've been able to partner with TriWest for now through September, and in September we'll be partnering with Optum Healthcare Solutions, and these two providers are building a network for us to allow our veterans to go out into the community.
So the doctors would have to opt into those networks you mentioned?
That is correct.
Under the Veterans Choice Program, the VA through the third-party contractor at the time, had trouble paying some doctors on time for care given to veterans. Some doctors dropped veteran patients because of that. Do you expect that same problem to occur under the MISSION Act?
I think TriWest is very appropriately staffed and moving things forward to make sure the providers are paid in a timely fashion. It's part of their contract. So I'm not too concerned about that. As we've done in the past, if that comes up, I'm more than happy to work with those individuals or groups to make sure we're paying in a timely fashion.
The MISSION Act spells out a new benefit for urgent care. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
The benefit to go out and access urgent care is one that I think will be the most beneficial because it is going to impact veterans that are facing an urgent care crisis that would be most appropriate for the community. So we're working with TriWest to build up that network. Our veterans would be able to go on VA.gov and search for the location of those urgent cares that are in the state of New Hampshire. I think what's important about the urgent care benefit (and this is probably the most important component of that) is that a veteran has to go to an urgent care that is in network. A veteran cannot just go out to any urgent care in the community. It has to be an in network provider. And that's why I mention that they'll have to go to va.gov to find those in network providers that are out there.