VA: Fix for Choice plan taking longer than expected

The Veterans Affairs Department pledged to create a pilot program to help Alaska vets get health care services outside the VA. The pilot program didn’t fully launch by mid-November, as promised, but a top VA official says they’re making progress.

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Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan asked VA Undersecretary David Shulkin about it at a hearing this week. Sullivan says VA staffers told his aides a few days ago they may delay the Alaska pilot program indefinitely.

“And on behalf of my veterans, I’m pissed!” Sullivan said, his hand striking the table. “So what  the hell is going on?”

Shulkin told Sullivan he’s still committed to the Alaska pilot program.

“And I am not walking back on this.”

“But your staff was walking back …”

“My staff, who I bet is watching this right now, are listening to me as I say we are not walking back on this. I made a commitment to you and to the veterans and we’re going to see this through.”

Essentially, the Alaska pilot is supposed to restore a program that allowed Alaska veterans to contact the VA to get care at private clinics and in the Native healthcare system. The new Choice program requires veterans to call an Arizona-based contractor called TriWest, and some patients say it’s been impossible to get appointments.

Under the pilot program, TriWest is supposed to have employees working in the offices of the Alaska VA.These days Shulkin told Sullivan, Alaska calls are still routed to a TriWest call center out of state, but the calls are consolidated.

“We have, through TriWest, a virtual call center only answering for Alaska. I said to you I want people in Alaska scheduling …”

“And my team was told you’re not doing that now,” Sullivan interjects.

“We are doing it, but it required a contract modification to a federal contract, which is a bigger deal than I knew when I came into the government.”

Shulkin says the contract change was finally completed last month and he says TriWest expects to have employees embedded in the Alaska VA within six weeks.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage.

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