Senator Heidi Heitkamp United States Senator for North Dakota

Press Releases

Mar 13 2018

Heitkamp Presses VA Secretary Shulkin to Improve Choice Program, Hold Health Net Accountable & Protect Rural Providers

North Dakota Health Providers Have Repeatedly Experienced Delays in Payment from the VA, Impacting Quality of Care Available to Veterans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today called on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to address delayed payments to rural hospitals and community clinics providing care to veterans through the Veterans Choice Program.

Health Net, the third-party administrator contracted with the VA in 2014 to provide assistance and access to health services outside VA facilities, has struggled to provide timely payments to community health providers. Additionally, the contractor has largely failed to provide efficient scheduling and customer care services to veterans.

“After Congress passed the Choice Program, health care providers stepped up to provide quality access to care for veterans in their communities, so veterans wouldn’t have to drive halfway across the state just for a routine check-up. Now, Health Net can’t guarantee that North Dakota clinics and hospitals will be paid in a timely and transparent manner—and that’s simply inexcusable,” said Heitkamp. “Today, I pushed Secretary Shulkin to take immediate action to investigate this ongoing mess, so that the federal government can fairly compensate those treating our nation’s bravest men and women. We hold the physicians and staff at the Fargo VA and VA clinics throughout our state to an extremely high standard, and they meet it every day by providing attentive care to North Dakota’s veterans. Those administering the Choice Program need to face the same rigorous expectations, and I’ll continue to look for practical ways to reform the program.”

In the letter sent to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, a bipartisan group of senators led by U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) criticized Health Net and its ability to provide answers about delayed payments, lost paperwork, and other customer service issues. Heitkamp and Tester were joined by U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Mike Crapo (R-ID). Click here to read the full letter.

Heitkamp has long worked to reform the Choice Program, which aims to allow veterans who have difficulty obtaining a timely appointment with the VA, or live more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility, to seek care from local providers. The Choice Program was created in 2014 when Heitkamp helped pass the bipartisan legislation, and she has since worked to properly implement and reform the program.

In August 2016, Heitkamp held a roundtable discussion to discuss fixes to the program and heard from North Dakota veterans and health providers about serious challenges in the program, including scheduling and billings issues related to Health Net. Based on feedback at that discussion, Heitkamp pushed for the Choice Program Care Coordination pilot initiative, which now allows North Dakota veterans to book their Choice Program appointments directly through the Fargo VA Clinical Resource Management Department, rather than scheduling through Health Net.

Heitkamp helped introduce and pass a bipartisan bill signed by President Trump to extend and reform the Choice Program. The bill also improved medical record sharing and made the VA the primary payer. The Choice Program was set to expire on August 7, 2017.

And in March 2016, Heitkamp helped introduce a bill to reform the Choice Program by giving the VA flexibility to improve care for North Dakota veterans by streamlining and consolidating community care programs, while eliminating bureaucratic obstacles preventing veterans from accessing care.

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Contact Senator Heitkamp's press office at press@heitkamp.senate.gov