Videos & Speeches
Mr. President, just a month ago, I was here on the Senate floor talking about the struggles of a number of Kansas veterans as they attempted to utilize the Veterans Choice Program that Congress passed now nearly two years ago. That program is being implemented by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We looked for many opportunities to try to provide better service, more efficient service, more timely service to our veterans, and Congress ultimately came together and passed the Choice Act.
As I indicated a month ago and numerous times on the Senate Floor, that legislation, that law says if you are a veteran who can't receive the … medical services you are entitled to, that you have the opportunity to receive those services at a medical facility, a clinic, a physician, a hospital, at home. As an individual senator who comes from a state as rural as most and more rural than many – and certainly as rural as the Presiding Officer's home state and the home state of the Senator from Missouri – we have a real interest in trying to make certain our veterans who live long distances from a VA hospital can access that medical care.
I thought we took great satisfaction in the passage of that legislation. I certainly did. What we have discovered since then is its implementation has been one handicap, one hurdle, one bureaucratic difficulty, one challenge after another. And while maybe it is difficult for the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement this legislation, they are the ones who ought to suffer the challenges of doing so, not the men and women who served our country.
During my conversation on the Senate floor a month ago, I talked about…a number of veterans in Kansas and called them by name. One of those veterans was Michael Dabney, a Kansas veteran from Hill City, Kansas, in northwest Kansas, out in the part of the state that I grew up in.
A piece of good news is that Mr. Dabney is eligible for the Veterans Choice Program because he lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility. So Mr. Dabney qualifies under that Choice Program, and Mr. Dabney needed surgery and elected to use the Choice Program. There is a community-based outpatient clinic hosted by the VA in Hays, which is about an hour away from his hometown. He was receiving care and treatment there. The indication was he needed the surgery, and they suggested that he travel to Wichita – another couple hundred miles – for that surgery. But Mr. Dabney suffers from PTSD and indicated that he didn't feel comfortable and capable of traveling that extra 200 miles to receive the surgery.
His primary care provider at the outpatient clinic in Hays then indicated to him: Well, you live more than 40 miles from a facility. You qualify for the Choice Act. You can have these services provided and this surgery provided at home.
Mr. Dabney elected to do that, so rather than driving another 200 miles for surgery in a city far away, he had the surgery performed at home. That seems like the way this is supposed to work. But the end result was that, according to the VA, he didn’t receive preauthorization. So his primary care provider telling him that he qualified for the Veterans Choice Act, him getting the service at home, he then started receiving the bills for that service.
In frustration, he then contacted our office, and the folks in my office – like in yours who solve these problems – went to work. Here was an example that I thought we could be successful in solving. The record clearly indicates that his primary care provider, his primary VA care provider indicated he should utilize the Choice Act and have the services, the surgery provided at home. He did so. And the VA then declined to pay for those services to the provider, and he began receiving the bills.
So we went to bat for Mr. Dabney, and despite our efforts and despite his efforts, he has been told that those bills are due and to be paid by him because he didn’t get preauthorization. My point being today is that the Department of Veterans Affairs ought to be the federal agency that bends over backwards to help our veterans.
I remember when the current secretary testified before our Veterans’ Committee in his confirmation hearing, and he indicated that he was going to run the department in a way that was all focused on meeting the needs of veterans. And yet, just a few weeks ago, Mr. Dabney was told this by the VA. I don't know if they said they are sorry. They simply said: You didn’t get preauthorization. You don’t qualify. Those bills are your responsibility.
I am here once again trying to highlight [what happened]…We went to the intermediary TriWest. They thought they could help us accomplish this and get the information that Mr. Dabney acted on and that this ought to be sufficient for the VA to pay the bill. And even with their help, the results from the Department of Veterans Affairs, through their Wichita hospital, said that Mr. Dabney obviously didn’t understand the rules, and, therefore, they were not going to see that his bills were paid by the VA.
This just seems outrageous to me. The VA, through its employees, indicated he qualified. He relied upon that information, their assurance that he qualified, to have the surgery done at home. He is a veteran who needed surgery and who suffers from PTSD. He would be deserving of all the care, the treatment, and the consideration that could be given a man who served our country so well and suffered the consequences. And yet, despite his assurance that he should use the program, the decision was made: I am sorry you didn't dot the i's and cross the t's.
I ask my colleagues to help me as we work our way through the implementation of the Choice Act. It is discouraging to me – the number of veterans who tell me how disappointed they are with the Choice Act – when I thought it was such a great opportunity for their care and well-being. And the end result is that many are discouraged, giving up on the Choice Act and not receiving the care and attention that they need from the VA, deciding that the VA should not be their provider. The point being that we’re failing them once again. We’re failing them veteran by veteran, one at a time.
The consequence is that the program is still not working. You cannot not meet the needs of a veteran and then have an expectation that we have done something useful and beneficial to that veteran.
There is a discussion going on in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and there are bills led by Senators Isakson and Blumenthal that address many of the issues plaguing the VA, ranging from their appeals system to accountability, to remedying the problems associated with the Choice Act. I urge my colleagues not to lose, allow this opportunity to bypass, to go away. We must take these actions. In my view, this is an example of this problem that the VA should solve on its own. They should find a way to make this work. In their absence to do so, we as Members of the Senate – certainly, I, as a member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs – we have the obligation to continue to do battle for those who battled for our freedoms and liberties.
I apologize to Mr. Dabney that he has been treated the way he has been by the Department of Veterans Affairs, by his government, and I will continue to fight on a case-by-case basis. But we do have a real opportunity as Republican and Democrat Senators to come together and agree upon a legislative solution to these and many other problems that plague us and plague our veterans.
So I simply am here to make the case, hopefully to the Department of Veterans Affairs, that they would again find a way to care for this man who served his country and also to ask my colleagues to work together to make certain – in whatever ways legislatively we need act to meet the needs of those who served our country – we do so.
Mr. President, I thank you for the opportunity to address this issue and the cause of this veteran and many others. And I yield the floor.