In 2018, I made a trip to my local urgent care facility for intense abdominal pain. At the time, my only health insurance was through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but I was hesitant to go to an emergency room as the VA often dragged its feet paying bills. I opted to go to an urgent care facility instead as that bill would be lower, and I knew I could afford to pay it if the VA didn’t.
The urgent care facility suspected diverticulitis and wanted a CT scan to confirm. If I had to go to a hospital, I figured I would go to one I trusted – a facility in Colorado just 40 minutes from where I lived in Farmington.
The news I received during that visit was shocking.
I had diverticulitis, but the doctors also found a mass on my left kidney. Testing options were limited, so the hospital began coordinating surgery to remove it. The doctor set to perform my surgery was an Air Force veteran and former flight surgeon, so I felt at ease and in good hands.
But the most difficult part of this situation was just beginning.
In those days, the Veterans Choice Program oversaw referrals to community providers. The program was meant to alleviate appointment backlogs that came to light during the Phoenix VA wait-list scandal. While well-intended, the VCP was a clunky system, built on arbitrary criteria that didn’t prioritize veterans’ best interests.
My hospital went to bat for me, pushing to keep my surgery with them where I would feel comfortable and close to home. But the VA denied the request, saying I didn’t meet the criteria for non-VA care, and the VA could do the surgery.
The VA facility that would do my surgery and follow-ups was a four-hour drive from my home and caregivers.
This process was mentally and emotionally draining. What I needed was to focus on my procedure and recovery. But the VA increased my stress about who would do my surgery, where my surgery would happen, and how I would make the long drive back and forth while recovering.
I reached out to my congressman’s district office for help. A few days after the office got involved, the VA relented and approved my surgery for community care. I take no pleasure in saying it took an act of Congress, figuratively, to get the VA to put my needs first.
My story has a happy ending. My surgery, at the facility of my choice, was a success. The tumor, a renal cell carcinoma, was caught in time.
But not all veterans who go up against the VA win. Many are at the mercy of a bloated bureaucracy that is looking out for itself.
When the VA MISSION Act was signed into law in 2018, I was relieved for veterans like me who would get more say over their health care. Through the law’s improved Community Care Program, more veterans can access care where they live, avoiding long waits and long drives.
But we aren’t out of the woods yet. The government and VA’s response to COVID-19 led to millions of canceled appointments, with no indication of follow-up. There are reports in Georgia that appointment backlogs are growing and in Florida that community care referrals are being dragged out.
Veterans are in the best position to make our own decisions, whether that means care at the VA or not. Legislation such as the recently introduced Veterans Health Care Freedom Act would build on the progress made through the MISSION Act by giving veterans even more choice and access to needed care. But until a bill like that is passed, lawmakers and advocates must keep a watchful eye on the MISSION Act’s implementation and stop any attempt to roll back progress.
Nate Banks is a Navy veteran and a grassroots engagement director with Concerned Veterans for America. He now lives in Albuquerque with his family.