Bergman hears about veterans’ concerns

U.S. REP. JACK BERGMAN, left, listens to Susanne Gedvick talk about her experiences with the Veterans Choice program. To Bergman’s right is Joe Testolin of Americans for Constitutional Enforcement, which organized the event. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Veterans and others told U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman while they appreciate the level of care at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center, the federal Veterans Choice program that should allow them to see private providers was a disappointment.

At a forum with the congressman Thursday set up by Americans for Constitutional Enforcement, most comments centered on the failings of the choice program, which allows veterans to receive care from outside doctors if they must wait 30 days or more for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility.

Several said they could not get private treatment as promised because of the program’s poor payment record that made providers wait for months, even a year, if they got paid at all.

“This is one of the things that pained us, the Choice providers not being paid,” said Brad Nelson, public affairs officer at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center.

Bergman, himself a Marine veteran, said the problem stems from how quickly the plan was put in place after the 2014 scandal over wait times at a Phoenix VA hospital.

“It was a good idea, poorly implemented,” Bergman said of the program, “and it needs a lot of work.”

Susanne Gedvick said she rarely uses Veterans Choice except when she needs a mammogram at Dickinson County Medical Center. Bureaucratic delays pushed the procedure back by about three months, she said.

She’s due again about now, she said. “This is the one time of year I go,” Gedvick said, “and I always get a hassle.”

Yet Gedvick had nothing but praise for the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center, as well as the Milwaukee VA hospital, saying of the Iron Mountain facility, “I hope and pray it never, ever closes.”

The local medical center generally got good reviews from the crowd, which numbered about 70. Almost all who indicated they obtained hearing aids through the VA raised their hands again when Bergman asked if they were satisfied with what they received. It was an area where the VA succeeds, he said.

The two-hour session at Bay West was intended to focus on veterans matters, as the freshman congressman from Watersmeet sits on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, plus is chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and a member of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee.

Paul Sirchia of Hermansville, like Bergman a Marine veteran, retired in 2008 from the VA. But he had to go out of town to find a doctor willing to fix his cataracts.

Opting to use Medicare for the first time saddled him with a $2,500 bill, Sirchia said. When he suggested the VA pay the subsidy, he was told no.

“Why?” he said he responded. “Because it makes sense?”

Another veteran said he needed five out-of-town trips for cataract surgery because a local provider would not do the work.

“The Choice program is not doing any better today than a year ago,” he said.

Congress approved $2.1 billion in emergency funding in August to keep the program going, but VA Secretary David Shulkin later said more may be needed before year’s end.

Bergman told the crowd Thursday that Shulkin will need to lead the department out of the “unnecessary layers of bureaucracy.”

“There are solutions that are in discussion right now. There’s a lot of balls in the air,” Bergman said. “But I’m hopeful.”

On non-veteran issues, Bergman said:

— He hadn’t seen enough details to take a stance on the Senate bill that would restore federal payments to insurers so they can reimburse out-of-pocket costs for low-income consumers under the Affordable Care Act. But Bergman added, “We need to have a health care system here … to lower the costs and we have to get the federal government out of the health care business.”

— He also awaits full details of President Trump’s tax reform plans, but “the big pieces of the framework are to cut taxes” and simplify the system.

— He would have preferred the budget plan the Senate passed Thursday and the House approved earlier had more cuts on mandatory spending, which he said threatens to overwhelm the budget, “but it’s a start.”

— His first 10 months in Washington were focused on “building relationships,” with a lot more bipartisan work than is portrayed in media reports, especially on the Veterans Affairs committee. He thinks the House has accomplished a fair amount of legislation this year but faulted the Senate, saying “I certainly would like to see the Senate get something done.”

— U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida should resign for what Bergman termed the politicizing of President Donald Trump’s condolence call to the widow of a Green Beret killed in Niger. Wilson said some of Trump’s comments were disrespectful, which the president has denied. “It’s conduct unbecoming,” Bergman said of Wilson’s actions with what White House chief of staff John Kelly — who lost a son in action — on Thursday termed to be a “sacred” practice.