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Local veterans happy to see VA Choice Program extended

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GRAND FORKS, ND (WDAZ-TV) - If you or someone you love has served in the armed forces, this is something you'll want to hear.

A program that saves time and could save lives for veterans has been extended.

President Donald Trump signed legislation this week that extends and expands the Veteran Choice Program offered by the Department of Veteran Affairs for another year.

The program allows veterans to seek care from private doctors if they live far away from VA hospitals or if the wait is too long. This is good news for veterans here in North Dakota, as the only VA hospital in the state is in Fargo.

John Hanson, veteran: "They didn't have to send me clear to Fargo to get an X-ray. It was taken care of. No wait time. It worked."

John Hanson served in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. Recently, he had a hip replacement. And before the Veterans' Choice Program was expanded, it was a real pain getting care.

Hanson: "If the doctor wanted to know what was going on right away, you could never get in."

That's because an out-of-state third-party healthcare system was setting up appointments for veterans in the Red River Valley. That same-third party one time set up an appointment for Hanson in southern Minnesota.

Hanson: "Doctor says, ‘why you coming here from Grand Forks? Can't you get it done up there?’ And I said, ‘well, are you a specialist or something?’ and he said, "no we're just a regular eye doctor.’  Well, here we go again..."

Senator Heidi Heitkamp lobbied hard to extend and improve the Veterans Choice Program.

Senator Heitkamp: "Our veterans have earned the right to healthcare. That shouldn’t mean that someone in Stanley, ND has to get in a van, drive 10 hours to Fargo, get his cancer treatment, then get back in his van and drive home. That is not healthcare."

Thanks to her efforts, the third-party was eliminated, and now the Fargo VA handles appointments for area veterans. They also are allowed to see private doctors closer to home, which is just what Hanson did Thuruday afternoon.

Hanson: "It’s quicker appointment, like today was within hours. Everything was taken care of. It's working so good it's unbelievable."

The Veterans Choice Program was set to expire in August, but has been renewed for another year. Heitkamp and others are lobbying for long-term solutions, so that people like Hanson don't have go back to using VA hospitals only.