Veterans Hospital Denver
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Traffic passes by the campus of the Veterans Administration hospital under construction Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Aurora, Colo. On Thursday, June 8, the United States Justice Department announced that it has declined to prosecute Veterans Affairs Department executives after lawmakers accused two of them of misleading Congress about massive cost overruns at the Aurora, Colo., site. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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A new Department of Veterans Affairs expansion offering more private care options will roll out in June, and it will look a lot like the Veteran’s Choice Program (proposed motto: “We keep costs low by not paying anyone.”)

The agency offered preliminary guidelines last week that will allow veterans to see private care in lieu of long drives or long waits for government care. But these guidelines at first glance are more complicated than the ones offered by Choice, and they still aren’t final.

For the most part, though, if you’d have to drive an hour or wait more than a month, VA can offer an insurance- like plan to cover a visit to a civilian doctor.

The wait-time standard will apply to thousands of patients in Colorado Springs where the Floyd Lindstrom Clinic (motto: “Floyd won the Medal of Honor! Our wait times didn’t!”) still has some of the nation’s longest waits.

Patients here, on average, wait 32 days to see a VA specialist and 26 days to get mental health care. More than 21 percent of patients wait a month to be seen at the clinic off Fillmore Street. Under the new standards, that means a lot of Colorado Springs patients will get the option of seeing a private- sector doctor.

While Colorado Springs patients had virtually the same options under the Choice program, few exercised it. And the few that did too often found themselves stuck in a bureaucracy that was like VA, with more paperwork and confusion.

And VA’s latest dalliance with private care will have a hard time overcoming the legacy of the Choice program. Enacted at the height of VA scandals, it was designed to allow veterans to escape VA waits. But, the program was marred by management missteps, and complaints from local doctors who had waited many months for payment.

The new program, part of the $55 billion VA Mission Act passed last year, is also causing some to fear that VA’s health care wing could some day be privatized.

Veterans groups, Democrats, federal unions and others have panned wider plans for private VA care.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie addressed those worries last week.

“Although these new standards represent an important win for America’s Veterans, they will not be without controversy,” he said in a statement. “Some will claim falsely and predictably that they represent a first step toward privatizing the department.”

But President Donald Trump, first in a Colorado Springs campaign stop in 2016 and several times after, has voiced that veterans need the same choices in health care that their civilian counterparts enjoy.

And Wilkie, while denying he would farm out the agency to the private sector, is all-in with Trump.

“Most Americans can already choose the health care providers that they trust, and President Trump promised that Veterans would be able to do the same,” Wilkie said. “With VA’s new access standards, the future of the VA health care system will lie in the hands of Veterans – exactly where it should be.”

The implementation of the new VA care system will see its closest scrutiny in Colorado, which has two U.S. senators already howling about the epic wait times in Colorado Springs.

Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, sent Wilkie a stern letter in December demanding he explain why Colorado Springs veterans are waiting so long for care.

The long waits here have been going on for more than five years now, achieving notoriety for their apparent intractability.

The lawmakers asked Wilkie to outline how the new care options will help veterans here. His reply has not been released.

At last, veterans get one shorter wait from VA these days. On a drive past the new Pikes Peak National Cemetery near the Colorado Springs Airport, it was apparent that VA is at least rapidly burying our nation’s honored dead.

The cemetery opened last fall and now dozens of headstones are in evidence.

You can learn more about the cemetery program by calling 216-1025. You’ll have plenty of time to make the call while waiting for your doctor.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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