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Veterans face long drives for care despite new program

Melissa Blasius | 9 News

Second in a series by 9 News to highlight access to VA healthcare:


KUSA - Southern Colorado veterans frequently have to drive an eight-hour round trip to Albuquerque's VA Hospital for medical care, despite a new program aimed at improving access for rural veterans.

Congress approved the $10 billion Veterans Choice Program last year. It was created in reaction to reports of secret VA waiting lists, which hid substantial delays in veterans' medical care. 9Wants to Know has been investigating delays in Colorado veterans' care, exposing a secret patient list used in the Sleep Lab and calculating bonuses for top hospital administrators.

All VA patients received a Veterans Choice Card. They can use it to access private doctors in their communities if they meet one of two eligibility criteria. The veteran must either be waiting more than 30 days beyond the "desired date" for a specific VA appointment, or the veteran must live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA clinic.

The existence of the 40-mile boundary has brought new attention to the question of how far is too far to travel for care.

Former Air National Guardsman Greg Hopkins, who has PTSD, lives on a farm in Hesperus.

"[Hesperus is far] enough away, that I don't have to deal with people when I don't want to. That's a big deal," Hopkins said.

He is still close to Durango and services like a VA clinic. The clinic is 17 miles from his house, so he does not qualify under the distance provision for a Choice Card. As a result, Hopkins must make repeated trips to Albuquerque's VA hospital, which is more than 200 miles away.

"VA is my sole source of medical insurance," Hopkins said.

When Hopkins tore his bicep tendon, the VA sent him to Albuquerque to get an X-ray, an MRI, and consultations with an orthopedic specialist. The veteran could not get that care in Durango because the VA clinic offers only primary care, mental health services and lab testing.

"I drove four hours each way and received about three minutes of X-rays," Hopkins said. "I have to admit I was pretty irritated."

Hopkins says the eight-hour round trip was a wasted day, which he says is difficult for him as he runs a farm.

He thinks it's also a waste of taxpayers' money. The VA paid him $160 for mileage each time he drove to Albuquerque. The prevailing insurance rate for an X-ray in Durango is far less than $160.

Disabled Vietnam veteran Vince Ginardi made five round trips to Albuquerque last year to repair a broken crown. Because it's a 51-mile drive to the Durango VA clinic, he should qualify for non-VA medical care in his community under the Choice program.

Ginardi has heard from other veterans about difficulties booking local appointments through the program.

When 9Wants To Know analyzed VA data, we found Colorado veterans made just 403 Choice appointments in the first four months of the program. That's microcosmic compared to the more than 183,000 appointments in the Denver VA system during the same period.

Ginardi says he probably won't use the card.

He said, "It is easier for me to get sick and call triage in Albuquerque and go to the ER," which is a few miles away in Pagosa Springs.

"The Choice Act is the biggest smokescreen that's ever been thrown upon the veterans," Ginardi added.

Veterans' advocates say long drives to access full-service VA medical facilities discourage patients from seeking care.

"They are going to quit," Archuleta County Veterans Service Officer Raymond Taylor said. "They are just going to let go. 'I'm not in that bad of health, so I am not going to worry about it,'" he said.

Taylor says the problem of distance is compounded by a veteran's age and winter mountain driving conditions.

"I've also lost a few veterans here lately that I feel if they'd had health care, the problems that they had may have been found before it was too late." Taylor added.

"It seems like the distance should be from a main VA hospital not from a clinic," Hopkins suggested.

Some members of Congress agree; however making that change would dramatically increase the overall cost of the temporary program.

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