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VA backlog bill awaits president

Local hospitals prepared for possible influx of vets

Time will tell whether military veterans start flocking to non-government health care providers as the result of federal legislation allowing the shift under certain circumstances.

A bill approved Wednesday by the House and Thursday by the Senate would pay for veterans to go outside the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical treatment if they have to wait at least 30 days for a VA appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility.

Officials for the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System said Thursday they cannot comment on the legislation until it is signed by President Barack Obama.

A VA audit of the Northern Indiana system in mid-May showed that 97 percent of its patients were able to schedule physician appointments within 30 days.

Most residents of the system's region – 26 counties in Indiana and three counties in northwest Ohio – live within 40 miles of a VA facility. The Northern Indiana system, which serves about 40,000 veterans, has medical centers in Fort Wayne and Marion and outpatient clinics in Goshen, South Bend, Peru and Muncie.

Areas farther than 40 miles from VA facilities in Indiana, Ohio or Michigan appear to include parts of Steuben County and northwest Ohio.

The Northern Indiana system already contracts for outside medical services. It spent $38 million in fiscal 2013 on non-VA health providers, according to Michael Brady, public affairs officer for VANIHCS.

The system spent $21 million on non-VA providers in fiscal 2011 and $25 million in fiscal 2012, Brady said in an email. The large increase in spending in fiscal 2013 coincided with the temporary suspension of inpatient services at the Fort Wayne med center, which continues to refer intensive care patients to outside providers.

Brian Bauer, CEO of Lutheran Health Network, said the Fort Wayne-based health care provider already sees a double-digit daily count of VA patients. He said Lutheran is equipped to handle an increase.

“I think what this bill may allow for is quicker access and probably more access points for veterans, because we have hospitals and clinics throughout northeast Indiana,” Bauer said in a telephone interview.

“We treat and care for VA patients every day now,” he said. “This is just going to help to streamline that process a little more and allow veterans to access care quicker.”

A spokesman for Fort Wayne-based Parkview Health said it, too, is ready for any VA patient.

“We're prepared to assist the VA however best meets their needs,” Parkview public information manager Eric Clabaugh said in an email, adding that Parkview “is happy to provide care to veterans who choose to utilize our services and is ready to do so if needed.”