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VA Rolls Out New Program Aimed at Quicker Care

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Acknowledging the frustration of veterans who have spent months seeking an appointment with a Veterans Affairs' physician, VA Secretary Anthony Principi on Tuesday was promoting a new policy aimed at shortening long waiting lists for VA health care.

Principi, attending the Veterans Health Administration Senior Management Conference in Chicago, said a new program will allow veterans to receive medications prescribed by private doctors from VA mail-out pharmacies. The first prescriptions will be filled Sept. 22 and the trial program will last a year, he said.

"We face enormous waiting lists, and a significant number of veterans coming to the VA for health care are coming just for access to cheaper prescription drugs," Principi said.

A VA spokeswoman said the new policy, announced late last week, could affect up to 200,000 veterans on waiting lists to see doctors. Veterans who have been on a waiting list for more than 30 days for their first appointment with a primary care physician are eligible. The program would cost $49 million in 2004 if 90 percent of eligible veterans decided to use it, the spokeswoman said.

Veterans groups had mixed reactions to he program.

Jim Doran, national service director for AMVETS, said the policy's temporary nature makes it serve as nothing more than a Band-Aid.

"This is a great step to try and reduce the waiting lists, but we don't see a gain as a temporary measure," Doran said, adding that veterans still would need to make an appointment with a VA doctor to renew their prescriptions. "The resolution is for Congress to pass mandatory funding for veterans' health care."

The price of prescription drugs is not covered by Medicare, the federal health care program for senior citizens and the disabled, but Congress is trying hammer out a program to start doing that. With drug costs skyrocketing, many veterans have turned to the VA for low-cost medicine, in which they only pay $7 per prescription for a 30-day supply.

But before last week's policy change, veterans only had access to low-cost medications if they were able to obtain an appointment and prescription from a VA doctor - a task that might take up to six months in areas with high veteran populations.

The waiting lists at Chicago-area hospitals aren't as long as in communities filled with retirees in Wisconsin, said Joan Cummings, director of the VA network serving northern Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Michigan. Cummings said she expects northern Illinois VA hospitals will have little or no waiting lists by the end of the fiscal year even without the new plan.

The program's lack of accountability was denounced by other vets' organizations, such as the American Legion.

"Who's going to be responsible if a veteran gets the wrong medicine-the VA pharmacy or the private doctor?" asked American Legion National Commander Ronald Conley. "There are too many unanswered questions."

But any plan that cuts down on the amount of time veterans have to spend waiting for appointments is positive, said Nancy Verespy, executive director of Veterans of the Vietnam War.

"There's always a problem in trying to get an appointment with the VA," she said. "The new Gulf War vets coming home shouldn't have to wait if they need to see a doctor. Anything that makes life easier for veterans is a good move."


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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