Northwoods veterans have an alternative to traveling long distances or enduring long waits for health care at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities now that area Ministry Health Care facilities have started taking part in the Veterans Choice Program.
Ministry Health Care is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health care system in the nation and the world's largest Catholic health system.
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 established funding to pay for health care services provided to veterans by private health care providers.
As part of Ascension, Ministry has joined 23 other states and the District of Columbia as an official provider of Veteran Care.
Under the new program qualified U.S. veterans who face wait times in excess of 30 days at the VA or have to travel farther than 40 miles from their home can receive care from Ministry Health Care hospitals and clinics at 13 sites of care in northern Wisconsin.
Last week, Ascension President and CEO Anthony Tersigni toured Ministry Saint Mary's Hospital to speak to veterans. He also spoke with media representatives about the importance of the new program.
"Our commitment is to take care of all persons, with special attention to those living in poverty and those who are vulnerable," Tersigni said. "And, quite honestly, today I met with some veterans who are vulnerable. And our hope is to really improve the quality of life for them and their families."
Through the partnership, Ministry Health Care physicians and other caregivers are authorized to provide primary care, inpatient and outpatient specialty care, and mental health care for eligible veterans outside of the VA system.
Tersigni said he was "pleased" to hear that the caregivers at St. Mary's are treating the veterans with the "respect, dignity, and compassion that they deserve, not only as a human being, but also as a veteran."
Nick Ragone, chief marketing officer for Ascension, said Tersigni was impressed with how well the program, which was implemented in March, is working at St. Mary's.
"He was very pleased to see the type of care that they are receiving and to make sure that they get everything they need. I think he was very impressed with the team at St. Mary's and how dedicated they are to this program," Ragone said.
Ascension is one of the national leaders in the roll out of Veterans Choice Program as the largest provider network involved.
"It's a national program available to any provider system. We have a national contract and we are the second largest provider system in the country and we are probably the biggest provider involved in the program," Ragone said. "And, for us, we're really making this a priority in all of our hospitals. We're in 24 states and the District of Columbia and we're doing a national marketing and education campaign for veterans, letting them know this program is available and how to access it."
Ragone said Ascension has hired veterans who serve as navigators, so when veterans come to the program, they're first helped by another veteran.
"We have a call center that is staffed with veterans," he said. "So we really invested heavily in making sure we're providing the veterans with the right kind of care."
Ragone said the VA has been supportive to work with in setting up the program.
"The VA has been great to work with; we're all in on it together to just provide the easiest access to the best care possible to veterans. We commend the VA for being innovative in coming up with this program and other similar programs to make sure that no matter where a veteran lives, or how long of a wait they have, they are going to get the care they need immediately," Ragone said."
Besides hiring the navigators, Ragone said it's too soon to tell if the program will lead to more jobs at Ministry facilities in northern Wisconsin or elsewhere in the country. he said.
"We're focusing on the staff we have to make sure the level of care is there. But that's something we certainly have to keep an eye on," he said.
Ragone said the veterans seem to appreciate the program and how it has streamlined their health care.
"The program is still relatively new for us, but the initial feedback that we're getting has been very positive from veterans," Ragone said. "I do think they are appreciating that we're educating about the program and how to navigate it. I think they really appreciate the outreach.
In a recent column published in the Lakeland Times, Oneida County CVSO Tammy Walters said Ministry Health Care's participation in the Veterans Choice Program is a positive development for local veterans but has caused some confusion.
"Ministry's participation is very welcomed by veterans and those of us who serve veterans; however, the Veterans Choice Program itself has not changed," she wrote. "The program is still run like it has been since 2014. It's just now the Ministry Health Care system will be an option for veterans."
The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was created in the wake of multiple deaths that occurred at the VA Medical Center, Phoenix, Ariz., due to delayed medical treatment, Walters noted. The program, often referred to as the "Choice Program," is temporary and is scheduled to last for three years or $10 billion, whichever comes first.
"If you would like to see a non-VA provider, you must first contact your VA health care facility to see if they can schedule an appointment for you with your primary care provider within 30 days," Walters added. "If they cannot, you should be offered the opportunity to use the Choice Program for non-VA care. If you're not asked, you can request them to make a referral so you can. You should then wait a few days for this to take place then call the number on your Choice Card, which is 866-606-8198. This number is staffed by a Third Party Administrator, or TPA, and is a contracted company, not federal VA employees. Our TPA in the Northwoods is HealthNet. They will then schedule your appointment at an approved medical facility. The Choice Card is not an insurance card. If you go into a non-VA facility and present it as one without prior approval, your medical costs will not be covered. This includes emergency room visits. All use of the card must be pre-approved. If you are authorized to use the Choice Card and have health insurance, the VA will be secondarily responsible for costs associated with non-service connected care but will be primarily responsible for service connected care."
Ministry's northern Wisconsin facilities chosen to launch this initiative include: Ministry Saint Mary's Hospital, Rhinelander; Ministry Sacred Heart Hospital, Tomahawk; Ministry Eagle River Memorial Hospital, Eagle River and Howard Young Medical Center, Woodruff, as well as Ministry Medical Group Clinic locations in Crandon, Eagle River, Laona, Rhinelander, Tomahawk, Woodruff, Owen, Thorpe and Stanley. Additional work is underway to expand this program to other Ministry locations.
Jamie Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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