The problem of access to rural health care for veterans may be addressed in legislation being introduced in response to the ongoing Veterans Affairs scandal.
Many Minnesota vets travel great distances to get to one of two VA medical centers in the state, in Minneapolis or St. Cloud. There are 13 outpatient clinics for primary care, but even those can be difficult to get to, particularly in northern Minnesota and in the winter.
The VA scandal over wait times for appointments has generated legislation in Congress that includes addressing the issue of access to VA-paid health care through other clinics and hospitals.
Some private medical practices are under contract with the VA, but a House measure would pay for doctors unaffiliated with the system. And it would allow those who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility access to private health care at the agency’s expense.
The complete answer may not come in bringing in private health providers to serve vets. On Tuesday, the Star Tribune documented concerns about a privately run clinic in Hibbing. Criticisms of that clinic echo those of larger VA facilities that have come under scrutiny.
We talked to one vet who had chest pains in Big Falls and went to the hospital. When the VA was contacted, the vet said, he was asked if he was stable. When he said he was, he was instructed to drive to the St. Cloud VA, three hours and 45 minutes away, for testing.
A trip to the Minneapolis or St. Cloud VA for aging vets in northern Minnesota often involves getting up before dawn, picking up other vets in a service van, waiting for the appointment and then making the trek home after dark.
Opening up health care for veterans would come at a price, though. Granting vets greater access to private care could increase direct spending by about $35 billion over the next 10 years, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The report also says improved access could cause more vets to seek care through the VA, with a possible added annual cost of $50 billion.