For a fortunate few, it would not be a financial crisis to get an unexpected bill of $1,000 or more for a medical procedure performed several years ago that presumably had been paid. But for many families, this would wreak havoc with the household budget and pose a genuine hardship.
Regrettably, 1,451 veterans in Minnesota and Wisconsin who were hospitalized at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center in the last five years suddenly have been saddled with hefty bills for their care. The reason: errors at a centralized billing office in Kansas. The sums involve copays required of some veterans for inpatient care. The Department of Veterans Affairs notified congressional representatives of the error earlier this year.
Contacted this week, a VA spokeswoman for the agency’s chief business office emphasized that the VA is providing flexible payment options and that the amounts collected would go directly back to the VA to improve health care services for veterans. That response is remarkably tone-deaf for an agency widely seen as run by uncaring bureaucrats after the scandal that erupted over delayed appointments and patient care at some VA locations.
The VA’s inability to perform a basic task — timely billing — should not burden veterans with hardship, confusion and stress. Nor should their families be asked for further sacrifices. Copays should be waived if the bill went unprocessed for a certain time because of VA errors.
While Congress may need to pass legislation to give the VA authority to waive bills, the agency ought to pursue these debts less aggressively in the meantime. About 98 percent of the veterans affected have been contacted and have already agreed to a payment plan, according to the agency.
Easing up on collections, especially as Congress considers remedies, would be the compassionate move. It also would be a public-relations boost and a substantive step toward rebuilding confidence in an agency badly tarnished by the delayed-care scandal. The uncollected sum is $549,198, barely a blip in the agency’s sprawling budget.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who has admirably rounded up congressional support from the Minnesota and Wisconsin delegations, said he plans to introduce legislation this fall that would specifically allow the agency to waive the copay if the bill wasn’t sent within 120 days. That’s a pragmatic fix that merits swift approval, though the deepening political divisions over the federal budget likely will bog down this and other worthy measures.
Kline and other members of Congress are also asking a key question of the VA: Is this billing error limited only to those who sought care at the Minneapolis facility? A VA official who spoke with an editorial writer assured that this was an isolated incident, but offered few other details.
Lawmakers have laudably jumped on this issue. Continuing to apply the pressure will ensure that the VA handles this billing snafu with appropriate care.