Confusion About Veterans Health Care In Guam Continue

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Contractor says Choice Card works, patients say they can’t use it

By Shawn Raymundo

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, July 1, 2015) – While the president of a local veterans group insists a new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program isn't being offered in Guam, government officials said the program is fully operational on the island.

The Choice Card program was launched last year to give eligible veterans the option of receiving medical care from private physicians.

A spokeswoman for TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which administers the Choice Card program in Guam, said it has more than 100 health care providers contracted on Guam and American Samoa that can see veterans. Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo released a statement Tuesday saying TriWest officials had assured her the program was fully implemented on the island.

However, Rodney Cruz Jr., president and founder of the Iraq-Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Veterans of the Pacific group, disputed those statements.

"Politicians and the government are going to say what they want to say. How can they know what's going on with the veterans?" he said. "How can they advocate? How can they say 'he's wrong' and 'I'm right'?"

The Choice Card program allows veterans to receive medical care from a non-VA medical facility with one of two caveats: the wait time for treatment at a veteran's local VA clinic is 30 days or more; or the nearest VA medical facility is more than 40 miles from their home.

Elaine Labedz, TriWest's vice president of communications, said Guam veterans are treated as if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.

According to Bordallo's office, island veterans don't need a referral from the VA Guam Community Based Outpatient Clinic, nor do they have to wait for more than 30 days to seek care using the Choice Card.

In a statement released Tuesday, Bordallo said she was assured by TriWest that Guam veterans are eligible for the program and that the contractor will continue to work to add local providers that will accept Choice Program benefits, especially for specialty care.

"I appreciate the attention this program has had in our community, and I will continue to work with my colleague and local leaders and stakeholders to ensure that we provide our veterans with the care they deserve," she added.

Labedz said TriWest said care to Guam veterans also is supplemented by non-network providers that agree to serve veterans under the VCP.

Veterans who were given a Choice Card are supposed to call an 866-number listed on their card "to opt in to the program and request assistance to get the health care appointment they need," Labedz said.

Cruz said that he, a disabled veteran, has called the number multiple occasions hoping to schedule an appointment with a private physician to address his sleep apnea. In the past week alone, he said, he's called five times — only to be denied access to the program each time.

"We cannot offer you a referral because Guam is not recognized," Cruz said he's been told whenever he speaks with a Choice Card representative.

VA Pacific Island Healthcare System in Honolulu instructed physicians at CBOC to refer veterans to the Choice Card, Cruz said.

"So the doctors at the VA clinic (on Guam) are scratching their heads now," he said.

Guam Vet Center Administrator Martin Manglona echoed Cruz's statement, stating that when veterans on island call the number, they can't get through.

"People got their Choice Card through the mail but they can't use it," Manglona said.

Cruz said he's been admitted to the emergency room at Guam Naval Hospital two times in the past three weeks because of medical complications he's developed from not getting his CPAP machine, a device that treats sleep apnea. And he said he's spoken with hundreds of island veterans who share similar stories.

"I'm not the only one," Cruz said. "You're looking at everyone on Guam who's been given a Veterans Choice Card, who have called the number and been denied over and over again."

Both Manglona and Cruz said they each have scheduled teleconferences with the VA office in Honolulu later this week.

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