U.S. Sen. Patty Murray met with local veterans and medical service providers at the VFW Hall in Ellensburg Tuesday to gather input on their experiences with a new Veterans Affairs medical plan.
President Trump signed the VA MISSION Act in June 2018, with the program replacing the previously used plan, referred to as Choice, in June 2019. The new plan requires the VA to expand their network of healthcare coverage to include non-VA walk in clinics, and to ensure that payment goes to providers outside of the VA system. With VA medical care available on the West Side, Spokane and Walla Walla, the program is designed to make healthcare more accessible to veterans who live in rural areas like Ellensburg that are not geographically close to VA hospitals or clinics.
The veterans and service providers who gathered around the table with Sen. Murray shared similar opinions on the rollout of the MISSION Act, with two prominent talking points surfacing throughout the conversation. It was agreed upon by the participants that the program was still in its infancy, and that there hasn’t been enough time to accurately judge how the new plan has been affecting the quality of veterans’ health care.
A source of collective frustration from event participants was the lack of information being distributed to veterans about the plan and how to use it effectively. Some of the participants had been mailed information, while some had to conduct research on the internet to learn more about the new plan. Even after putting in time to research the plan on their own, many were still not confident in their ability to educate veterans on how to best use the new plan.
Kittitas County resident and U.S. Army veteran Tiffany Metzger is a perfect example of someone in the community who could utilize the MISSION Act. Metzger suffers from physical disability and posttraumatic stress disorder, which makes it difficult for her to travel long distances. Although she is signed up to utilize the VA office in Seattle, she said the drive can be physically challenging.
“I’ve just stayed in the valley for most of the time,” she said. “Most of the time I don’t make appointments out of town.”
Because previous VA plans did not accommodate for private healthcare providers, Metzger said she had to use her employer’s health insurance to cover appointments in Ellensburg. She had only recently heard about the Choice program, which was the one replaced by the MISSION Act.
“I was excited about it,” she said. “I was about to make the time to go out of town to make the appointments to see doctors in town through the VA, and then the MISSION Act came out. Now I’m kind of starting all over again.”
Despite the changes to the program, Metzger said she thinks the new plan has great potential. For her, the biggest challenge the plan has is getting word out to veterans like her about how the program works.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “In fact, I had heard recently about the plan that had just got stopped. I think there needs to be more information out there. Maybe like brochures or mailers or something like that so that all the other veterans know that there’s this great program.”
Metzger said having a program that would eliminate the physical and mental challenge of traveling long distances would help her and would make medical appointments much more convenient for other veterans that live in rural areas like Ellensburg. She said having to attend a medical appointment at a VA facility on the West Side is an all-day affair.
“It takes a lot of planning to get something like that started,” she said. “You have to plan to miss work for a day because you’re traveling outside town. You’re going to be sitting at an office, because the VA is a very busy place. You get there, you sit around until they can see you. It takes a lot of time.”
As the program continues to roll out, Metzger said she hopes the concerns of the participants at Tuesday’s event are heard by lawmakers, and that more information is distributed to veterans about the new plan.
“As far as success in meeting the needs of veterans, these are the veterans that are in need of this program,” she said. “If they don’t know about it, it’s not being used.”
Despite the hiccups in getting the word out about the new plan, Metzger hopes that the plan will achieve its goal of making lives easier for everyone who utilizes the VA system.
“It would be really great to know that not just me, but my other veteran brothers and sisters are easily going to the doctor and getting things taken care of,” she said. “It’s something that would ease my mind.”
Sen. Murray, who is currently in the middle of a statewide trip to talk to rural residents about issues ranging from workplace harassment to workers’ rights, said the input she received at the Ellensburg meeting was incredibly valuable.
“I’m here today talking to veterans in particular because I want to understand whether the VA MISSION Act which was passed by Congress is being implemented in a way that actually works for those veterans who we passed it for,” she said. “It’s really disheartening to hear they’re not getting the right information or any information at all. It isn’t going to work unless veterans understand it and providers understand it.”
Once she wraps up her visit to the state, Murray said she will take the information she gathered at the meeting back to Washington D.C. with her to relay to other lawmakers. She said one challenge she has faced is that the plan has not received a large amount of feedback from veterans at this point because many of them still don’t know it exists.
“Until you go to access it and find out it’s there, you start asking questions,” she said. “That’s not how this should play out. Veterans should it’s available. If they need it, they know it’s going to be there.