- Associated Press - Sunday, March 22, 2015

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - A new program aiming to simplify private health care coverage for veterans and reduce wait and travel times hasn’t caught on in the Black Hills region.

The VA Black Hills Health Care System reports that only about 2 percent of 3,219 eligible veterans made appointments through the Choice Card program. The system serves more than 19,330 veterans in portions of South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

Stephen DiStasio, the system’s former director, attributes the low participation rate to veterans’ preference for VA care, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1GxTXq2 ) reported. DiStasio said many veterans don’t mind waiting longer because they would rather work with someone from the VA.

DiStasio said the Choice Card program also might be less attractive to eligible veterans since the Black Hills location already had expanded its use of non-VA care before the new program went into effect.

“I really think we were pretty far down that road already, in terms of getting care for veterans closer to home and if there was an exorbitant wait time,” said DiStasio, who retired Feb. 27.

Veterans who qualify for the Choice Card program live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility or have been told they would have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment, among other criteria.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said in a report to Congress last month that just 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private care since the Choice Cards started to be mailed out in November. The department has sent 8.6 million cards.

The program was created as part of a law passed by Congress last year in response to reports that dozens of veterans had died while waiting for care at a Phoenix VA hospital.

In rural areas with few providers, veterans might find little use for Choice Cards, said Mike Mullen, a Vietnam veteran who’s senior vice commander of the South Dakota branch of Veterans of Foreign Wars. He said those veterans are likely to call providers that were already booked up when the VA contacted them.

“I think they’ve got a lot of work to do on it,” Mullen said of the Choice Card program. “It needs a little fine-tuning.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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