FORT MEADE, S.D. — U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie marveled at the reach of the Fort Meade VA medical center during a visit to South Dakota that was part of a tour of veterans’ facilities in four states in five days.
Wilke said the VA Black Hills Health Care System Hospital at Fort Meade — which draws patients from Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota as well as South Dakota — serves the largest geographical area in the VA system outside of Alaska. So, he said, veterans who use it face far different issues that in urban areas such as Philadelphia, Atlanta and Miami.
“What fits in the east doesn’t fit out here,” Wilkie said during a visit Wednesday. “We have to go where the veterans are.”
Republican Sen. Mike Rounds, who met with Wilkie prior to the secretary’s tour, said the region’s veterans would prefer to use VA facilities, but the distances make it challenging.
Wilkie also talked up an initiative launched this summer, the Veterans Community Care Program, which is meant to let veterans seek care at non-VA facilities. He said it gives veterans the option of not having to travel.
The benefit provides eligible veterans with access to non-emergency care for certain conditions in the VA network of community providers. Veterans can go to any urgent care or walk-in care provider in VA’s network without prior authorization from VA.
“They are allowing veterans to have a choice, and if they can get care closer to home from a private facility then the VA will pay the bills,” said Gov. Kristi Noem, who accompanied Wilkie on his tour.
But there have been problems along the way. Wilkie said the VA is addressing the problem of veterans who’ve been wrongly denied reimbursement for care at non-VA facilities.
Rounds said his office is working with nearly 20 veterans with bills for care that have not been paid yet by the VA.
“We continue to work through that through our office. We don’t know how many there are still out there, so it’s a challenge,” the senator said.