Great Falls Tribune: Veteran at war with system over hearing aid

HELENA — A Vietnam veteran upset with the federal Veteran’s Choice program in his quest to get a hearing aid has threatened to burn the card that registers him in the program, reflecting frustration with all parties involved to say they are looking for ways to fix the system for all veterans.

Helena resident Dave Dube’s complaint reflects a deeper problem with the program, officials said, as many local audiologists and optometrists decline to participate, saying payments are late or come up short.

Dave Dube said Tuesday that after several months of frustration, something had been worked out between Montana Health Care System and Health Net. And he now has an appointment with a Helena audiologist.

His complaint reflects problems with the Veteran’s Choice Act of 2014, officials said.

According to the government webpage, the program allows veterans to receive health care within their community. Using this program does not impact existing VA health care, or any other VA benefit.

But the program’s third-party provider, Health Net, has been late with payments to providers or not paid at all, many claim.

“Veteran’s Choice was supposed to be a fix and it has not worked well in Montana,” said Mike Garcia, a spokesman for the VA Montana Health Care System.

He added it was not only a problem for patients needing audiologists, but optometrists as well.

A Health Net spokesman said the company was aware problems exist, but was determined to resolve them.

“We know there are delays in the processing of provider payments, and we are working with the Department of Veterans Affairs on ways to overcome these delays and improve the process going forward,” said Brad Kieffer, director of communications for Health Net Inc.

Dube, 68, said because audiologists in Helena have refused to participate in the program, due to problems with Health Net, he must go to Great Falls, Butte or Bozeman for help.

While the distance is not overwhelming and some veterans are reimbursed for travel, Dube said it is inconvenient.

And he said it’s not just one trip, to get outfitted with a hearing aid. It’s three at least.

“The Choice program gives me no choices,” he said. “They are giving me grief is what they are doing.”

He said he wants to burn his Veterans Choice card as symbolic gesture of his dissatisfaction with the program, but others have told him to reconsider.

Out of pocket, the average hearing aid can cost $3,000-$4,000, Dube said.

He developed his hearing problems during the Vietnam War while in the Navy as a medic and serving with the Marines in a field unit.

He said he can’t hear the doorbell, he can’t hear the phone and he can’t hear whispering.

“It’s enough for a divorce,” his wife, Teresa, mused as she sat by his side.

Dr. Hillary Q. Carter, an audiologist, said she was the only Helena-based provider participating the Choice program.

“Unfortunately, the Choice program is not reimbursing for services in a timely manner and they have an extremely large balance with our office,” she said via email. “I have been forced to make a decision to not accept any new patients through the Choice program. We are continuing to service those veterans that have established care with us in the past, but I cannot afford to stay in business and not receive reimbursement for the work that I do.

“This was not an easy decision to make as I know there are many veterans that cannot travel far,” she said. “I will also say that if things don’t change soon, we will also be forced to not accept any veteran’s Choice patients.”

Veterans complained about the Veterans Choice program to VA Montana staff at an October 2015 meeting in Helena.

They spoke of long wait times and having to drive long distances for care. That night, officials said that in Montana there were not a lot of providers who joined the network and that some people would have to travel to where the resources were.

Garcia said the introduction of a third-party administrator, which is in charge of scheduling appointments, “hampers” the ability of the local VA.

“It’s frustrating for us and frustrating for our veterans,” he said.

He said one solution being considered is that if Veterans Choice cannot schedule an appointment in a timely manner, it is returned to the local VA “and we can reschedule through our own provider and we bill Choice through our network.”

“It’s a solution and it’s not in full capacity currently,” Garcia said.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Dube’s case serves as an example of problems within the system.

“This is why we need to drive accountability for the VA hospital,” he said. Daines said the program needs to ensure the providers will be reimbursed in a timely manner, 30 days or less.

Daines said he supports the Veterans First Act, introduced by fellow Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is a co-sponsor of the act as well.

It calls for accountability reform, makes improvements to veterans’ health care and benefits, enhancing programs for veterans’ mental health care and begins to address the VA’s massive backlog of veteran disability claims appeals.

Daines, said his staff, who he described as “pitbulls,” would look into Dube’s complaint.

“We will fight for him to get this resolved,” he said. “These veterans should not have to drive long distances for a relatively routine hearing exam. It’s unacceptable.”

There has been movement on other fronts to help veterans.

In late September, President Barack Obama signed Tester’s bill into law to increase VA funding and modernize military facilities.

This will increase funding for the VA by $3.3 billion.

Tester is the ranking member of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, which drafts the VA’s annual budget.

The bill will specifically provide $7.2 billion for the Medical Community Care account, which will help ensure that rural veterans and veterans needing specialized care can access health care treatment outside of the VA system and closer to where they live.

It will provide $248 million to improve VA facilities; $45 million increase for medical research initiatives and $2.86 billion for VA claims processing.

It also allocates $1.2 billion to increase access to telehealth services for veterans in rural areas, $284 million for veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and $8.6 billion for long-term care and support for Vietnam-era veterans and older veterans from other wars.

The bill provides $7.9 billion to modernize facilities throughout the Defense Department.

Teresa Dube said she feared the media attention would focus solely on her husband and not all the other veterans frustrated with the system.

“He’s just one little example in one state,” she said. “There are probably hundreds and hundreds of veterans in Montana in the same boat.”