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Efforts to improve veterans’ healthcare extend to Roaring Fork Valley

May 25, 2015

Today is Memorial Day, and recent changes for veterans aim to make it easier for former service members to get medical care in rural areas, like the Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher has this update.

Under the Veterans Affairs Choice Program, former service members can go to a private doctor nearby if they’re more than 40 miles away from a VA medical facility. Eligible veterans have received cards in the mail if they qualify. Joe Carpenter coordinates services for veterans in Pitkin And Garfield Counties.

“All the way down to Parachute, I’ve had guys and ladies use the Choice Card-- they can call the VA hospital and say I want to go to doctor so-and-so in Glenwood. Instead of driving all the way to the VA hospital in Grand Junction.”

Veterans have to make sure the private doctor accepts the choice card, which generally means the VA will reimburse them for the cost of their care. “I’ve used it myself in Glenwood Springs, says Carpenter. “The physician that I saw was more than happy to take the card. And I’ve had good response from other veterans in the Valley.”

The Choice Program went into effect last fall. This spring, officials hope to make it even more accessible. They relaxed the requirements for how far away a veteran has to be from a VA medical center.  “We’ve redefined that 40 miles. It was 40 miles as the crow flies. We’ve redefined it to be 40 miles by automobile or transportation,” explained Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald during a March trip to Snowmass Village. “Which will double the number of people able to access the program.”

And that has helped veterans in the Roaring Fork Valley. “It’s a big deal. A lot of guys before weren’t getting travel pay,” says Carpenter. “Because the VA rules said that they lived to close, and now they don’t.” Carpenter says generally veterans don’t mind going to Grand Junction, because the care is good. But the change helps them get reimbursed for gas. “As long as they qualify,” adds Carpenter. “If a guy makes too much money, he’s not going to qualify. Most things with the VA are income driven. A lot of people don’t like to hear that, but they are.”

“The problem with [the Choice Program] is that there are 1000s of veterans in line to use the program,” says Pat Hammon. She’s the Veteran Service Officer for Eagle County. “And there is a third party organization that’s in charge of the phone bank. For each visit the veteran has to call and get an authorization thumber. So that can take up to eight days. So that obviously this is not something you do in an emergency.” But, overall, Hammon says the 40 mile change has helped veterans get better access to health care.

Problems at Denver and Grand Junction facilities have had an effect on veterans in the Roaring Fork Valley. Denver’s new VA hospital is on the rocks thanks to a ballooning construction costs. And certain surgeries are being done at alternate hospitals after the Grand Junction facility had two veterans die and three become critically ill due to surgical complications.