WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation: Veterans Choice

WAAY 31 took action to get a local veteran the help he needed to live with his Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. The VA Hospital in Birmingham connected the veteran with a doctor in Huntsville.

Posted: Feb 15, 2019 6:39 PM
Updated: Feb 18, 2019 9:31 AM

Our latest WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation helps a Tennessee Valley veteran. The former Army soldier wanted to take part in the Veterans Choice program and use a doctor close to home here in Huntsville.

Trouble is, there didn’t appear to be a doctor willing to participate. WAAY 31’s Greg Privett was able to help the veteran get the results he wanted.

He’s often fighting to breathe. “I can’t take that real deep breath,” Tim Medley told WAAY 31.

People with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease describe it this way: like they’re breathing through a drinking straw. They’re desperate for air.

“The COPD, I was diagnosed in 2005,” Medley told us. “But, I had an abscessed lung in 2016. Since then, of course, my COPD has worsened. And it’s difficult.”

Medley served in the Army in the late seventies and early eighties. At Fort Bliss Texas, the Army specialist worked on electronic components of Chaparral and Redeye missile systems.

He stood ready to fight for his country. Now, he’s fighting a dangerous lung disease.

“Without that knowledge of how to function with COPD, it’s only going to get worse,” he said.

To manage his COPD, Medley needs pulmonary rehabilitation. Huntsville has a smaller-scale VA Outpatient Clinic.

But, it doesn’t offer pulmonary rehab. So, Medley wanted to use Veterans Choice: the program that allows vets to see private doctors close to home and the Department of Veterans Affairs pays for it.

About two million vets have used Veterans Choice since it began in 2014.

On paper, Medley seemed the perfect candidate. For one, the VA Medical Center in Birmingham is more than forty miles from his home in Huntsville.

The only problem, the VA couldn’t match Medley with a nearby doctor participating in Veterans Choice.

“I would like to see more doctors in Huntsville take claims for veterans,” Medley said. “To me, that’s the only solution.”

Besides not being able to find a private doctor for Medley, the VA clinic here in Huntsville is not equipped to help with pulmonary rehab. When Medley reached out to WAAY 31 for help, we went straight to the VA Medical Center in Birmingham and asked them about Veterans Choice.

“It provides access to our veterans for care that we don’t provide here at the VA or for services that we cannot get the veteran in timely,” Tamika Taylor told WAAY 31. Taylor is community care program manager at the Birmingham VA.

Within 24 hours of our call to Birmingham, the VA was able to find a Huntsville doctor for Medley. He starts his rehab Monday.

Part of that solution is because a contractor called TriWest now has sole responsibility for administering Veterans Choice. The VA says that’s added relationships with more private doctors to see vets.

“It gives them that access so they don’t to travel miles away from home or even be on the road for two hours,” Taylor told us. “So, yes, in his case it was a very positive outcome and we’re very excited about that -- extremely excited.”

The VA was even able to arrange more medical treatment than Medley requested.

“Not only have we been successful getting the veteran the services he needs for his COPD condition, we were also able to get him scheduled to have a sleep study done locally so he doesn’t have to come to the Birmingham VA for those services,” Taylor explained. “I think all-in-all, everything has worked out well for him and it’s been a very positive outcome.”

It’s a success story that could extend to other veterans. Taylor says that’s why the VA wants more doctors to take part in Veterans Choice. “We truly encourage those providers to please just join with us because the veterans, they need the care. And they shouldn’t have to travel for miles to get that care,” she said.

Back at Tim Medley’s home, he told us, “I’m overwhelmed with it.,” I didn’t expect it to happen this fast.” For Medley, it’s a potentially life-changing breath of fresh air.

He told us, “It’s awesome to be quite honest, Greg. And I appreciate you working to help me accomplish this. This is just a good start for me. It gives me a new energy really and thankfulness. And I really thank God for it.”

The VA told us any veteran having problems navigating Veterans Choice can call Birmingham for help.

Last month, Congress passed a law to make Veterans Choice permanent. And there’s a proposal from the VA to open Veterans Choice to more vets allowing them to see a private doctor if they live just thirty minutes away from a VA medical center instead of the current forty miles.

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