KARE 11 investigative reporter AJ Lagoe helped dying veteran Paul Walker expose Veterans Choice Card program problems, problems that provide many veterans with no choice at all. Coverage aired on Minneapolis’ NBC last night, and what reporter AJ Lagoe uncovered will shock many Americans.
WATCH VIDEO! See Veterans Choice Card NBC Investigation
Disabled veteran Paul Walker just came face to face with that brutal reality of no choice after learning he was dying of state 4 liver cancer. VA failed to provide timely assessment of Walker’s condition and went on to refuse life saving surgery after telling him he had 3-6 months to live. If limited to VA health care, Paul Walker will be dead in 3-6 months.
The video linked above provides a great overview of the problem. For more information and the background of this specific investigation, read on.
KARE 11 VETERANS CHOICE INVESTIGATION BACKGROUNDTo give some background, I am Paul Walker’s attorney and am helping him help other veterans fight for access to health care by exposing this farce of a program called Veterans Choice. I generally represent veterans related to health care problems including lack of access to non-VA health care nationwide. A big part of my practice relates to this issue and helping veterans access non-VA health care even through non-VA channels such as through state funded programs.
In my presence at Minneapolis VA, Walker called Veterans Choice to see what options he may have for non-VA care. Previous to the call, I escorted Walker through Minneapolis VA to observe how VA staff treated him in person because of concerns he expressed about VA staff being adversarial toward him. Overall, most staff members that day were initially adversarial but later backed off once Walker explained he was dying of stage 4 cancer.
I find that veteran treatment is sometimes dependent on the kinds of clothes the veteran is wearing and grooming. That day, Walker looked similar to how he looked in the KARE 11 video linked above.
On the phone with a VA operator, Walker explained his situation and why he wanted Veterans Choice, ie non-VA care. Unfortunately, he was denied at the time despite living more than 40 miles from his primary care center.
Instead, the VA operator informed Walker that since he lived 16 miles from a VA dental clinic, that he was not eligible for non-VA care for his liver cancer. When Walker asked for a letter documenting his denial, VA refused to provide written documentation.
Walker immediately reached out to KARE 11 News to investigate. Investigative reporter AJ Lagoe was quick to contact Walker and me. He offered to help us expose the very real lack of choice Walker faced in getting treatment for his deadly cancer.
Nationally, VA has recently claimed veterans refuse to use the Veterans Choice program because they love VA health care versus non-VA health care. Their argument continues that since so few veterans choose to use the program that the funds should be diverted to other parts of VA.
This claim is most certainly a public relations spin on reality to manipulate the public into believing veterans only want VA health care. Do you think most veterans truly want only VA health care?
A couple weeks after we contacted the press and with KARE 11 in the room, Walker again contacted Veterans Choice with a slightly different scenario. By that time, his condition was fully diagnosed, VA prescribed him heavy painkillers that prevented him from driving, and he was informed of his death sentence of 3-6 months to live. Still, VA refused to allow him to seek non-VA care in his community despite his inability to drive and being near death.
Walker wanted to show KARE 11 what happened when he tried using the Choice Card Veterans Affairs sent him, so he called the number on his card while Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe watched. "I want to see about getting preauthorization to get cancer treatment at a facility closer to me," Walker told the operator. But he was told he was not eligible under the 40 mile rule because the Northwest Metro VA Clinic in Ramsey is only 20 miles from his home. The frustrated veteran told the woman handling his Choice Card call that the Ramsey clinic does not offer the cancer treatment he needs. "All they do is dental work there and eye work and some basic kinds of different minor things," he told her. "But I have cancer stage 4." Paul's reasoning that the clinic near him doesn't offer the treatment he needs got him nowhere. "I don't get a choice. I get to die. So, to me that's not a choice," he said.KARE 11 News inquired about veterans’ stories across the country, and I had the displeasure of explaining that Paul Walker was not alone in being refused Veterans Choice.
"I've been hearing this across the country," said Benjamin Krause, a disabled vet and Twin Cities-based attorney focusing on veterans' issues. Krause is representing Paul Walker and had harsh words for the choice program.Reporter AJ Lagoe requested feedback from VA through a FOIA to see how many veterans have been allowed to use Veterans Choice and how many veterans have been turned down. It may come as no surprise that VA does not count veterans turned down for the program using incredibly squirrely logic:
"The supposed VA choice is nothing more than a bill of goods that they sold us," he said.
Krause points to the fact the VA is now claiming that since so few veterans are using the Choice Card program, the billions of dollars sitting there to fund Veterans Choice could be better spent.
"Now they're trying to justify the fact veterans are not using this choice, which is really no choice at all, as a means to defund the program and move the money elsewhere," said Krause.
“No veteran is turned down. They either meet the criteria which is >40 miles from a VA facility or >30 days for an appointment, or they do not.”RELATED: See VA FOIA response on Veterans Choice
How have you been affected by Veterans Choice? Did you get a choice? Do you think VA needs to change its 40-mile criteria?
http://www.kare11.com/longform/news/investigations/2015/03/10/mn-veterans-denied-new-medical-choice-program/24712177/ All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.
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Benjamin Krause is an award winning investigative journalist, attorney, and disabled veteran of the US Air Force, where he served in its Special Operations Command. He wrote his guide, the Voc Rehab Survival Guide for Veterans, after winning his long fight for benefits against VA to help other veterans do the same. Benjamin is a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Law School using VA Vocational Rehabilitation.