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Hoeven, VA director host roundtable to discuss veteran health-care concerns

Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., right, speaks with Fargo Veterans Affairs Director Lavonne Liversage speak at a roundtable hosted at the Stark County Courthouse Monday. Local veterans, veterans service officers and health care providers from both the VA and private sectors gathered to discuss concerns and possible legislation that could reform the way the VA administers health care.

A key piece of federal legislation expected to pass in the next several weeks could ease some of the red tape around local Veterans Affairs clinics and private providers of medical services for veterans.

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Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., held a roundtable in Dickinson on Monday to discuss the Veterans’ Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 with Fargo VA Director Lavonne Liversage, veterans service officers from multiple counties, representatives from local Community-Based Outpatient Clinics and a number of area veterans.

The visit was a chance for Hoeven and Liversage to listen to the concerns of the VSOs and veterans who have had to negotiate veteran health care services. For rural North Dakota veterans, particularly in the western side of the state, Hoeven said issues are primarily of distance, not of access.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out how, where it makes sense, we can get services closer to home,” he said. “How can we help the vets get both timely service, quality service and not having to go on long trips to get it.”

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, and co-sponsored by 44 other senators, including Hoeven. It passed through Senate earlier this month with a 93-3 vote. A similar bill passed through the House last year, and the two bills will have to be combined by a special conference committee made up of House and Senate members.

If passed, the legislation will work to allow veterans to go to local private providers like Sanford Health and St. Alexius Medical centers if they cannot schedule an appointment with the VA within 14 days, or if they live further than 40 miles away from the Fargo VA health center or a local satellite health clinic. There are seven satellite clinics across the state with an eighth expected to open in Devils Lake later this year.

The legislation could add 26 new VA health centers across the country and help the VA ensure veterans know what options are available to them and are able to get care in a timely manner. It’ll also allow the VA to fire employees who aren’t following through.

Liversage said the negative press surrounding the recent VA scandal, in which unknown numbers of veterans may have died waiting for medical care, has affected her staff, but that when it comes to access, “in general, Fargo is doing very, very well.”

A recent access audit of the VA system found that 97 percent of appointments scheduled through Fargo were scheduled within 30 days; none were scheduled past 90 days.

However, the veteran health care system in North Dakota is tasked with a unique problem of an influx of transient veterans — those who come to work in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch from other states but may not claim residency there — enrolling in the Fargo VA system for the first time.

Jessica Clifton, Stark County’s assistant veterans service officer, said she has had around 20 new veterans come to the community.

“So that’s 20 new veterans that need a first-time physical,” she said.

“We are very busy,” said Lana Wanner, a nurse at the Dickinson VA clinic. “Very, very, very busy.”

Hoeven said the legislation would ease the “bottleneck” that forms when demand for services outpaces supply by making it easier for veterans to get care from private providers — without leaving the veteran stuck in the middle with the VA and the private sector haggling over who pays.

Throughout the system, “there seems to be a lot of red tape,” said Stark County Commissioner Duane Wolf, a veteran himself.

“That’s what’s frustrating to so many of these people. That’s the biggest thing that we need to try to change.”

Liversage said after the meeting that she is eager to see what legislation is passed.

The roundtable was “a good opportunity for me to hear from vets in the Dickinson area,” she said. “We’ve already done so much work, and clearly there’s more work to be done.”

Hoeven expressed confidence that the bipartisan legislation will pass, though no timeline or vote has been set yet.