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Congressmen hear veterans' take on VA reform at Brainerd roundtable

Issues plaguing the Veterans Administration's new "Choice Program" took center stage Saturday during a Brainerd forum on VA reform hosted by U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., and Tim Walz, D-Minn.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., right, makes a point during a veterans roundtable on VA reform at the Brainerd VFW on Saturday as U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., looks on. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., right, makes a point during a veterans roundtable on VA reform at the Brainerd VFW on Saturday as U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., looks on. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

Issues plaguing the Veterans Administration's new "Choice Program" took center stage Saturday during a Brainerd forum on VA reform hosted by U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., and Tim Walz, D-Minn.

More than 30 veterans, family members, clergy and state-level elected officials attended the roundtable-style forum, held at the Brainerd VFW Mahlum-Hanson Post 1647. The roundtable was part of a three-day series of meetings Walz and Nolan held on veterans affairs in northeast Minnesota.

Veterans at the forum had praise for the medical care the local VA facilities gave them. The problem, they said, was getting access to it, and getting the VA to cover their expense claims.

"I've never had a veteran really complain about the quality of the care at the VA," Post 1647 Commander Dave Meyer said. "It has always been the wait time."

The "Choice Program" that Congress set up in 2014 was supposed to let veterans who didn't get a medical appointment within 30 days of their preferred date choose instead to go to a non-VA-eligible facility for treatment. The program was instituted following the 2014 VA scandal where VA employees at the Phoenix, Ariz., Veterans Health facility allegedly falsified records as dozens of veterans died waiting for care.

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Crow Wing County Veterans Service Officer Bob Nelson said that rather than helping, the Choice Program has made veterans confused and frustrated. The move toward centralization under the Choice Program made it devoid of the personality and empathy from older, more localized VA programs, and caused long wait times, he said.

"It's probably the most misunderstood program in the VA," Nelson said. "People don't know anybody and anything, they don't know where things are."

Walz, who serves on the U.S. House Veterans' Affairs and Armed Services Committees, did most of the talking during the roundtable. He said the the problems with the Choice Program stemmed from a wide gulf between the way the VA implemented it and the way lawmakers actually intended the program to go.

"I am hard-pressed to find anyone finding it's working that way," he said.

Walz asked the audience for a show of hands. How many of them had a good experience with the conventional VA system?

Almost everyone raised their hand.

Then he asked, how many had a successful experience with Choice?

Just one person appeared to raise their hand.

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"Capture that guy, he's the one guy in America," Walz joked. "He's like Sasquatch, take a picture."

Nolan demands more help for suicidal vets

The roundtable also covered the VA-related issues facing young post-9/11 veterans, particularly the high rate of veteran suicides. When veterans in crisis call the VA, they're met first with a recorded menu of buttons to dial rather than a human, Nolan said.

"By seventh or eighth (phone option), here's a young guy with a gun to his head," he said. "There should be a 'If this is an emergency, press one.' And somebody picks up the phone and helps him."

Nolan vowed to push the VA leadership for changes.

"We're going to get out there and sit on (VA Secretary Bob) McDonald if we have to," he said.

Nolan said he and Walz planned on meeting with McDonald to discuss potential changes to the Choice Program. In addition, Nolan said he would advocate for reauthorization of the Agent Orange Act, which allows the VA to add coverage for various Agent Orange-related diseases. The Agent Orange Act is set to expire Sept. 31.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .

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