Veterans: should it really take a congressman to schedule a mammogram?

- If you need to schedule an eye appointment or a mammogram, you just call your local health care provider.

Unless you served our country. Some veterans complain the health care system they're in forces them to call their congressman just to get even the most mundane procedures scheduled.

The program is called Choice, a $10 billion idea created by Congress in 2014 as a way to help our country's overburdened Veterans Administration Hospital system. The idea was to make doctors outside the V.A. available to veterans who live too far away or waited too long for an appointment.

But the FOX 5 I-Team talked to many veterans fed up with Choice and warn taxpayers are not getting their money's worth.

"They should be as outraged as us that their money's being misused," complained Air Force veteran Irma Martin. She had to involve her congressman just to get a mammogram scheduled by a private provider

"You keep hearing the question, why, why, why," explained Jeff Klein, a Marine Corps vet. "We don't know why."

He had to call his Congressman to help schedule a routine eye appointment outside the V.A. system.

"They're trying to cover their tracks but yet make it look like they're doing something," criticized Army veteran Jim Williams about the Veterans Administration. "They're not doing nothing."

Each of them lives in Cherokee County or points farther north. The kind of veteran whose home is at least 40 miles from the nearest Veterans Administration Hospital... and who's waited more than 30 days for an appointment.

The kind the Choice program was supposed to help.

"I don't even get a chance to use the thing!" cried Gary Klaric, a Marine Corps veteran.  "I present it. People don't want to take it."

But not only have veterans complained about slow V.A. authorization to see an outside doctor, providers like physical therapist Judy Rossi are fed up, too.

"Trying to talk to anyone there is literally, almost impossible," she pointed out.

The owner of Canton Institute for Physical Therapy says she got prior authorization from Choice to treat a retired veteran who had lasting back pain. But after 43 of an approved 60 sessions, Rossi says Choice called to say it wasn't paying for any of them.

"By the time they told us that, it was too late for us to bill his regular major medical policy because too much time had passed," she stated.

Her small clinic is out nearly $7,000. If it happens again, she'll tell Choice goodbye.

Most of the veterans we interviewed advised they've been hounded by bill collectors because the V.A. is slow to pay those outside providers.

"I get to the point sometimes where I just say don't call here no more," said Linda Williams, the wife of an Army veteran. "We're not paying the bill and I hang up."

Georgia's Johnny Isakson holds a powerful position as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He confirms his office gets constant complaints about Choice.

"An hour in a day doesn't go by that we don't get a complaint," he agreed. "And actually it's more than one an hour."

Senator Isakson believes his committee has come up with a better fix: let a V.A. doctor coordinate with every veteran to pick the best outside medical care if needed -- no matter how far away they live from a V.A. hospital. Plus, eliminate the third party administrator that slows the appointment and payment process so much.

No word on the price tag, but expect Choice 2.0 to cost a lot more than the original Choice.

"It's a lot of money," admitted Senator Isakson. "But we have a great country we wouldn't have today if it wasn't for these people who risk their life at one point in time in their life to make American the freest, safest country in the world. And that is, to coin a phrase, priceless."

But to coin another phrase, these veterans will believe it... when they see it.

"If I was by myself right now and didn't have my wife, where would I be?" cried retired Army vet Williams. "I probably would be in a ditch somewhere because I'm fed up with how I'm being treated."

The original Choice program is only authorized to run through August, meaning Congress will have to take action soon.
 

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