As has become customary over the last few years, medical officials with the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center of Shreveport, La., received a peppering of concerns from local veterans Thursday.
During the center's seventh town hall meeting in Texarkana, Ark., since October of 2014, a gathering of about 30 to 40 local military vets and their spouses expressed complaints largely about the VA's new but temporary Veterans Medical Choice program. The program's purpose is to improve veterans' access to health care by allowing certain veterans the chance to choose to receive health care from eligible physicians outside the VA.
However, local resident Baker H. Bledsoe, a U.S. Army veteran, said the Choice Program appears to be a move toward privatizing the VA.
"This choice program looks like it's leading the way to the VA's privatization," Bledsoe said. "This means there won't be enough doctors to take care of people."
Bledsoe went on to say that the center, which is a 70-mile drive one way, is in strong need of a patient advocacy staff.
"I don't understand how the Choice Program works and we need patient advocates down there at the medical center," he said. "Even if you find a local doctor participating in the Choice Program—and he or she writes you a prescription, you still have to go to Shreveport to get it filled and they make you pay for it."
Dr. John Areno, the medical center's chief of clinical staff, said the the center has had some issues with medical care provider coverage in the Texarkana area.
Besides the inconvenient prescription filling location, Bledsoe said it's difficult to get anyone to answer telephone calls to the medical center.
Areno said the center does have a communications problem in a building that is now more than 65 years old, but he added that center is in the process of setting up a new calling system.
Other veterans at the meeting said that under the Choice Program, they are having trouble finding a new medical provider if they aren't able to contact the one they've been referred to by the center.
However, Areno said the center will now be able to set patients up with new medical providers within three months.
Other veterans complained that the local Texarkana Veterans Outpatient Clinic doesn't have an automatic door nor does it have a chest X-ray machine—to which Areno replied that even though the building is being leased by the VA, the department is now looking at leasing a new local building with a chest X-ray machine and automatic door.
Still other vets said that when they've driven out of town to seek a choice provider, they are being asked pay for it with Medicare.
Areno said from now on veterans should never attempt to pay with through Medicare—especially if they go to the emergency room—and if they are asked to pay with Medicare they are to say that they are covered by the VA and then call the VA as soon as possible.
Larry Harrison, a local Marine vet, said he served 13 months overseas in Vietnam, but added that this information didn't appear on his DDT-214, or discharge paperwork.
"I have gathered all my medical records and have sent them to the VA and I don't know whatever happened to them," he said.
Bowie County Veteran Service Officer Ken Kunkle, who attended the meeting, said the VA despite some difficulties does work, and he told the veterans that if they need help in getting their federal benefits, he would try to help them.
Other veterans said that they have applied as many as three times to the VA to receive benefits, but were told that they earn to much money to qualify. Other vets said they have tried to seek choice medical providers in Texarkana but couldn't find any participants—and instead were referred to Shreveport.
Areno said Shreveport is sometimes the only city closest to Texarkana that has Choice Program participants.
Following some additional questions, Areno said Overton Brooks representatives will be back in Texarkana for another town hall meeting in three months.