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Big Questions Remain One Week Before Mission Act Rollout

The lobby of the Veterans Administration hospital at Ft Harrison in Helena
The lobby of the Veterans Administration hospital at Ft Harrison in Helena

In one week Veterans are supposed to get improved access to healthcare in the private sector via the Mission Act, which Montana Senator Jon Tester wrote. But there are still some big unanswered questions about whether it will work.

The Mission Act is Congress’ second attempt since 2014 to make it easier for vets to use their benefits to pay for healthcare in the private sector if nearby VA facilities don’t offer what they need, or if they’d have to wait weeks to get it.

The first attempt frustrated both veterans and private sector doctors and hospitals. The Mission Act is an ambitious set of reforms, and Paul Gregory, interim head of the Montana VA Healthcare System says the agency has been preparing for months to get it right. 

"I think anytime you roll out a large program, brand new legislation, new software tools there could be the opportunity for things to go wrong," Gregory said. "But we’ve provided staff lots of training and we feel that this is going to be something that is going to continue to get better and better."

Gregory explained the act and took questions at meeting at Ft. Harrison last night that about a dozen people came to. About the same number came to one in Billings. After that event Viet Nam veteran Skip Venard told Yellowstone Public Radio’s Nicky Ouellet that he’s optimistic about the Mission Act.

"I think this is definitely a step in the right direction," Venard said. "This is the first thing I’ve seen where the VA is actually moving toward a system change that will make it more possible for a veteran to get taken care of."

The Mission Act will only work if private sector doctors and hospitals agree to take VA payment. Lots of them got burned last time around because HealthNet, the private company the VA hired to process those payments didn’t do the job well. A new company, TriWest, has taken over the job on a temporary basis, and the Montana VA says it’s unclear how many doctors, clinics and hospitals it’s signed on so far, but it’s optimistic lots will give them a second chance because they, too, want veterans to get good care.

There’s a public meeting about the Mission Act at the Missoula Public Library for 4:00 -5:00 PM tonight, and on June 4th Great Falls at VFW Post 1087 from 4:30-5:30.

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