Michael Bennet: Fulfilling our promise to veterans | SteamboatToday.com

Michael Bennet: Fulfilling our promise to veterans

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet/For Steamboat Today

Colorado is fortunate to have a large and proud veteran community, and our state is committed to being the best place in the country for veterans to live and work.

More than 400,000 veterans live in Colorado. El Paso County boasts one of the largest concentrations of veterans in the country, Pueblo County is home to four Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and Buckley Airforce Base has one of the fastest-growing military populations of any base in the nation.

Our veterans and their families have bravely served and sacrificed for our nation, and now we have a sacred promise to support them on their return. That includes timely access to quality health care.

A critical element of this goal — especially in Colorado's rural areas — is access to non-VA care from community providers. The Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency charged with serving our veterans, has attempted to implement a variety of programs to offer veterans access to non-VA health care. Congress also passed the Choice Act to give veterans access to non-VA care if their waits were too long or they lived far away from a VA facility.

Yet, we continue to hear these programs aren't working.

Recommended Stories For You

Veterans in Durango have told us they are sometimes forced to travel hundreds of miles on mountain roads for doctor's appointments. In the San Luis Valley, home to more than 5,000 veterans, they once again have no primary physician at their local clinic and aren't able to easily access non-VA care. And in Colorado Springs, we personally met with the VA Health System director after a report documented that the Choice program was not being properly implemented.

Community medical providers partnering with the VA to provide care also report major problems getting paid by the VA after treating veterans.

In response to the many complaints, we are working with Colorado veterans and community organizations to introduce a bill to reform the Choice program, consolidate the confusing and overlapping community care programs and eliminate bureaucratic hurdles that are delaying service. Our bill would create a single administrative system to reduce the burdens on private providers.

We also have been able to make some inroads with Choice program implementation. At our urging, the VA announced last month it would simplify the administrative requirements placed on non-VA providers to accelerate reimbursements.

And we were able to fix a rule that only allowed veterans to access non-VA care if they lived more than 40 miles in a straight line from a VA clinic.

Any Coloradan can tell you that it can take an hour to travel to a destination that may only be 20 miles away if you're traveling across winding mountain roads. Under the new rule, veterans qualify based on their actual driving distance.

In addition, we're fighting to allow veterans who live within 40 miles of a VA facility, but require a specific service the facility doesn't offer, to receive non-VA care.

Finally, our work on the new VA medical center in Aurora will continue. Our veterans and taxpayers have zero tolerance for any more setbacks. We are committed to oversight of this project until the doors open.

No matter where they live, our veterans deserve access to high-quality health care and behavioral health care. It's our duty and obligation to ensure that the care is available in a timely manner and when they need it.

We will continue to work with veterans, veterans advocates, community organizations and the Colorado congressional delegation to find innovative ways to improve access to care and benefits for veterans and their families.