VA fumbles the ball with local veteran

Magnussen discusses encounter with new program


Last updated 1/7/2016 at 8:45pm

Havre Daily News/Roger Miller

Rick Magnussen poses for a photograph last Thursday in front of Hi-line Funeral Services of Montana in Havre. Magnussen had some trouble working with the U.S. Veterans Administration getting an eye appointment in Havre, although the difficulties have been resolved and his appointment set.

Rick Magnussen was frustrated. He was having trouble seeing why it was taking so long for the Veterans Choice Program to schedule eye and ear exams for him. The 64-year-old veteran had been trying to get his eyes and ears checked for about 100 days.

Magnussen got his VCP member card in the mail Oct. 26, after someone from a Veterans Affairs office suggested he enroll in the program so he could get appointments made faster. The VA was backed up, he was told.

The VCP is a VA offshoot program implemented in 2014 to help correct the gross malfeasance that put the VA in the national spotlight. In the first half of 2014, investigative reports started to reveal that VA workers all over the nation were entering the veterans' information into their computer screens, printing and intentionally moving on without saving the record. The point of this maneuvering was to hide the trail that kept track of lengthy wait times some veterans were enduring. Some waited as long as a year.

The benefit of the VCP, a statement on the Health Net Federal Services website says, is that it "allows eligible veterans who live more than 40 miles from the VA facility or are unable to get a VA appointment within 30 days of their preferred date, or within 30 days of the date determined medically necessary by physicians, to obtain approved care in their community instead."

Magnussen lives well within 40 miles of the outpatient clinic in Havre. But that does him little good when it comes to getting his eyes and ears checked out. They don't do either in Havre. But there are a few optometrists in Havre, and he was willing to go to Great Falls for his ears. This was exactly where the VCP was supposed to swoop in and save the day.

Shortly after Oct. 26, after he'd received his card, a VCP representative told Magnussen that he should expect to receive paperwork with the dates of his appointments within two days.

As of the last day of 2015, Magnussen still didn't have an appointment for either exam.

Magnussen, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and hearing aids in both ears, spoke to Havre Daily News last Thursday at a funeral home in Havre, where the retired native Iowan works part time. He peppered his sentences with head shakes and shoulder shrugs of discouragement. He didn't see what the point of the new program was if it didn't pick up where the other one left off.

"It doesn't work," he said, lifting his shoulders. "I'm tired." He shook his head slightly.

Magnussen's frustration reached new heights four days before talking to the newspaper. That Monday, he called the toll-free number on his VCP member card to check the status of the eye and ear appointments he'd been waiting on since October. The first person he spoke to, Magnussen said, told him she couldn't find any records on him whatsoever. Incredulous, he asked to speak to the "supervisor of the supervisors."

The supervisor found his information.

But that was all the supervisor found. The woman on the other line admitted there were no records indicating any appointments had been made for a Rickie Joe Magnussen and apologized for "dropping the ball." She assured Magnussen that his appointments would be made by 3 p.m. that day.

When 3:30 ticked around, Magnussen got a call with the representaitve saying the VCP was unable to make an appointment that day, but saying one would be made the next day.

Tuesday rolled around and the excuse from the VCP was two-fold: they were unable to reach whichever facility they claimed to have called, and they needed to do more geographical research.

"Why is it so hard to get that appointment made? I can call and get them made in 10 minutes," he said he told the VCP representative.

The VCP employee told him he was not allowed to make the appointment himself - they would have to do it. They explained that if he were to make the appointment with that provider, he would be liable for payment.

Someone from VCP called Magnussen Wednesday to let him know appointments for eye and ear exams had finally been made - in Lewistown.

Magnussen said he didn't know what to think anymore. One of the main benefits of the VCP was supposed to be that it allowed vets to go to the nearest community facility if the VA facility or clinic closest by was over 40 miles away. Lewistown is slightly 200 miles from Havre.

Magnussen said there were close options in Havre for his eyes, where he lived. He at least wanted to get his eyes checked immediately. He'd been straining them for too long. We'll call you tomorrow, they said.

Thursday, Magnussen said, the VCP employee he spoke to told him they called Northern Montana Vision Center to schedule an eye exam and no one answered. After hanging up, Magnussen called the Northern Montana Vision Center office. Someone in the office told him that they'd been there all week, and no one from the VCP called to make an appointment for Magnussen. They added that this sort of complaint from veterans was nothing new.

Northern Montana Vision Center representatives declined to comment for this article.

Magnussen called the toll-free VCP number and told them he'd had enough. Forget it, he told them. They were wasting his time. He was going to make the appointment himself and use his Medicare insurance, or pay for it himself if he had to. He also told them he was going to tell the newspaper what he was going through.

Havre Daily News called the VCP number on Magnussen's member card Thursday. After eventually getting in touch with Brad Kieffer from Health Net, who is in charge of speaking with the media, the newspaper learned that Magnussen needed to sign a waiver so Kieffer could possibly discuss any aspects of Magnussen's case. Havre Daily news received that waiver Tuesday.

A lot happened between last Thursday and this Tuesday. Calls were made, and forms expedited and faxed to all the proper facilities by the VCP, including the paperwork Northern Montana Vision Center needed to take care of Magnussen's eye exam. He also got an appointment to see an audiologist in Great Falls next week.

Whatever push-started the under-inflated bureaucratic wheels of the VCP in this case is uncertain. But Magnussen said he will gladly take it and hopes other veterans don't have to go through the same thing.


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