HARLINGEN, May 28 - It has been very quiet in recent weeks on the part of Rio Grande Valley veterans’ efforts to bring a Full Service Medical Center (FSMC) to South Texas.
Veterans had been very active in trying to persuade the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress of the need for a FSMC for south Texas for the past seven years. Are veterans satisfied with what they have accomplished and feel that they have won? Or is it the “seven year itch”?
Among most of the veterans, it was felt that the most common sense solution to the problem was to expand the new Surgical Center in Harlingen to a FSMC. The local congressional delegation also seemed to agree.
Of the many bills submitted before Congress requesting a FSMC for South Texas, HB 1318 submitted by Congressman Henry Cuellar this past session has advanced the farthest. Cuellar was allowed to attach HB 1318 to the Military & Veterans Affairs and other Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The language of 1318 was not incorporated into the law created by HB 2055, but it did send the VA a House Report directed at addressing veteran’s health care in rural settings.
For the past several years veterans have been targeting Congress and most of the efforts were directed at trying to pass legislation that would create a FSMC for South Texas. After all this time, we have learned that the real decision is up to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has the ultimate decision.
So, I contend, veterans should concentrate now on changing the mentality at the VA level in Washington. Veterans have the full support of the local congressional delegation and one would think that they would be poised to move on the VA. I do not believe this is the case. The City of Harlingen, which stands to benefit the most from having a FSMS, needs to do their part. They should have their lobbying mechanism in Washington, D.C., lobby officials to change the VA’s Strategic Capital Investment Plan (SCIP). SCIP is the blueprint for the VA’s answer to Congress on future construction. A ten year plan has been presented and in part it mentions the expansion of the new Surgical Center in Harlingen. Many veteran leaders felt that since it was part of the SCIP language that their efforts to get a FSMC were successful. But, alas, it never happened. Some of the leaders were led to believe that a proposal/plan package was being prepared by the local VA. This is not the case and it has been brought up on several occasions. There is no plan whatsoever before the SCIP process requesting the expansion. And the only ones that can include it in the planning are at the national level. So the target should be Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. He has to be convinced that South Texas needs a VA FMSC. It is in the hands of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has always been against a VA hospital for the area. At times they have been rather hostile about it. Our congressional delegation does not have the political clout to change their mindset.
In the meantime, the VA continues to provide medical care to veterans. They have instituted a contract system with two medical providers to provide medical care at their health care facilities. Referrals have been sent to these hospitals and it is fair to say that the new statistics prove that a standalone VA FSMC is warranted and needed. The statistics show high usage by local veterans.
Also, the local VA has instituted what is commonly referred to as the “voucher system.” Local medical providers have agreed with the VA to provide medical treatment to veterans when the VA refers them and sends a “voucher” with the veteran guaranteeing payment for services rendered. The issue now is that VA is very slow in paying the medical providers. The local doctors participating in this program do not want veterans to blame them. It is not their fault and if they do not get paid (reimbursed in a timely fashion) they have no alternative but to decline the vouchers and stop providing this much needed medical services.
Veteran advocates feel for and sympathize with these medical providers. But some medical providers are sending out collection notices. Veterans quickly blame the medical provider for refusing to provide medical care to them. But we need to understand that the local medical providers have expenses that are associated with their delivery of care. It is expensive and they need a cash flow in order to keep open.
Valley veterans have to re-energize their efforts and continue to keep the issue of a fully deserved FSMC on the front burner. They cannot take it for granted that the government will provide for the veterans.
Arturo 'Treto' Garza served as a Marine in the Vietnam War and is a former co-chair of the Veteran’s Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley. Garza’s Veteran's Voice column appears exclusively in the Guardian. Garza lives in Harlingen, Texas.