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Hoeven: Let’s remember veterans in a tangible way on Independence Day

WASHINGTON -- Independence Day has come to mean many wonderful things over the centuries. It is first and foremost a day to celebrate the birth of our great nation, but it has also come to be a warm and happy occasion to enjoy time with friends, ...

WASHINGTON -- Independence Day has come to mean many wonderful things over the centuries. It is first and foremost a day to celebrate the birth of our great nation, but it has also come to be a warm and happy occasion to enjoy time with friends, family, good food and special public celebrations with fireworks and patriotic music in cities large and small across our state.

The Fourth is also a time to remember and thank our veterans - the men and women who secured our freedom and independence almost 250 years ago, and also those who have protected our freedom and independence around the world ever since.

We often hear that we owe our veterans a debt that we can never fully repay. What we can do, however, is show them our gratitude in tangible ways by being there for them when they need us, especially when they’re ill and aged. That’s why I have pushed, and continue to push, for measures that will help us to better serve the men and women who have served our nation so well. What better way to say thank you than by providing them with the best quality health care and nursing home services possible?

In North Dakota, many of our veterans live in rural communities, requiring drives of up to eight hours to obtain care from the Veterans Hospital in Fargo when their Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) can’t provide a service.

Similarly, veterans in North Dakota have essentially one long-term-care facility, the Veterans Home in Lisbon, available to them, often taking them far from family and friends in their senior years. This is one instance where we have a real opportunity to make a huge impact on health care access for our veterans, especially those living in rural communities.

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To meet the challenge, I am working to pass the Veterans Access to Long Term Care and Health Services Act, bipartisan legislation I’ve introduced that will provide veterans with more local options for health care and skilled nursing homes. It works by allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to enter into provider agreements with qualified health care and extended care facilities. The bill enables more local providers to accept veteran patients without having to comply with burdensome and often expensive federal contracting requirements.

This legislation has now become part of the Veterans First Act, which we are currently working to pass in the Senate.

A second challenge facing our veterans in North Dakota is getting timely appointments scheduled at the VA Medical Center in Fargo. When a veteran is eligible to schedule an appointment with a local provider through the Veterans Choice Program, a third- party administrator with call centers located around the country has had to do the scheduling. As a result, I heard stories from veterans about dropped appointments, long wait times and other obstacles to getting in to see a doctor when they need to.

To address this issue, we have gotten the VA to launch a pilot project at the Veterans Medical Center in Fargo to resolve scheduling issues with the third-party administrators. This spring, I hosted a roundtable in North Dakota with officials from the VA and Health Net, a contractor that schedules appointments for veterans under the Choice Program. The meeting resulted in an agreement to implement a pilot project in North Dakota, allowing the Fargo VA to assist in scheduling appointments for veterans. That project is currently in development at the Fargo VA hospital and is now expected to be ready to implement this fall.

When all the Independence Day picnics and fireworks are over, we need to remember the men and women who ensure our freedom and safety. These measures are a way to thank our veterans every day of the year.

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