A federal grant of more than 12-million dollars will fund a new, three-year partnership between the University of Kansas Hospital and medical providers in Western Kansas. As Bryan Thompson explains, the money is from an Affordable Care Act program aimed at spurring innovation in health care.
Congress is working on legislative fixes to some of the problems that caused the recent scandal in the VA healthcare system. Among other things, the bills would create a nationwide program patterned after one the agency has been testing in Kansas and a handful of other states. It allows veterans who live a long way from VA medical centers to get care from local doctors. But as Bryan Thompson reports, Senator Jerry Moran is raising concerns about the agency’s plans to end the pilot program before the national version of it is up and running.
Senator Moran is worried that Kansas veterans like Hugh Steadman will be abruptly cut off from the care they need if the pilot program ends before the VA bill is passed, and the agency is ready to implement it nationwide. Steadman - who flew combat missions over Germany as a bombardier during World War II - lives in Great Bend. He used to have to drive two hours to the VA medical center in Wichita, a trip that was getting harder for him to make. Things got a little easier when the VA opened an outpatient clinic in Hays, but Steadman says that’s still more than an hour’s drive each way.
“Well, it’s getting to be quite a problem, because I’m 89 years old now, and my kids don’t like me to drive out on the highways, and I think they’re probably right," Steadman says.
But for the past year, Steadman’s driving time has been cut to just 10 minutes. That’s because a VA pilot project now pays for him to see a doctor in Great Bend. The project is called Access Received Closer to Home, or ARCH. The VA launched the pilot program in Kansas and four other states in 2011--three years after Congress authorized it. Pratt was the Kansas test site, but things didn't go well there.
“It failed pretty miserably.”
Vincent Wilczek is in charge of finances for Pratt Regional Medical Center. Wilczek says primary care doctors in Pratt and the nearby communities of Stafford and St. John signed up to do business with the VA, but were quickly turned off by the process.
“It failed pretty miserably,” he says. "They found it to be very burdensome, cumbersome to work with the VA, because it’s a very authorization-driven system. And then some of the requirements they were requiring of the physicians were just very hard for local physicians to do.”
The providers in the Pratt area stopped participating in 2012. That could have ended the pilot project in Kansas, but it didn’t. Instead, Humana, which administers the program, reached out to providers in other communities. That’s when St. Rose Ambulatory and Surgery Center, in Great Bend, got involved. One of the primary care providers there is Dr. James McReynolds. He says the VA bureaucracy takes a little getting used to, but he’s had no trouble getting authorization for necessary medical care.
“They do authorize a certain number of visits and/or labs and/or x-rays for each patient. It’s variable for each patient, and if you want more, you do have to request more,” he says.
McReynolds says he was happy to participate in a program that made it possible for veterans to get care closer to home. And veterans in Kansas and the other participating states seemed to like it too. Ninety percent of those surveyed by the VA said they would recommend it to other veterans. Hugh Steadman, the World War II veteran from Great Bend, says that's what he would have said if asked.
“I really like it," he says. "I sure do hate to see it quit. I’ve got several friends that go up there also, and it sure made it easy on us old-timers, where we don’t have to drive so far.”
Despite the rave revenues from veterans, the VA recently said it planned to end the ARCH program. Testifying to a congressional committee in June, the VA's Philip Matkovsky said the agency had the authority to extend the program but wasn't planning to.
“ARCH does expire as a contract," he says. "It was a firm-term contract with a base one year and then two option years, which expires I believe September 30th. Andy typically, unless the contracting officer can determine a compelling reason to extend that—and I’m not a contracting officer—we let contracts expire.”
Senator Moran strongly disagrees with that decision…
“ARCH comes about from legislation that I introduced as a House member," he says. "It has a lot to do with my background as a congressman from the First District of Kansas, a congressional district larger than the state of Illinois, but with no VA hospital.”
Moran has been urging the VA for months to continue the program. He sees it as a bridge to the nationwide program authorized in the bill still working its way through Congress.
“The idea that I was pushing about services closer to home over the last 4, 5, 6 years is something that is now front and center in bipartisan legislation that is expected to pass Congress, and be signed by the President," he says. "And yet, we still have a Department of Veterans Affairs who, presumably, is reluctant to implement and pursue these programs in part, I think, because the VA’s funding, if they pay for services outside the VA, it’s less money that they’ve had to use within the VA.”
The U.S. Supreme Court says certain employers can opt out of including contraceptives in their insurance coverage, based on their own religious beliefs. As Bryan Thompson reports, Kansas reaction to the Hobby Lobby ruling follows predictable ideological lines.
Kansas was one of 18 states that sided with Hobby Lobby in the court battle.
Governor Sam Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt called it a victory for religious freedom. Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran chimed in with similar views.
A new report from the Department of Health and Human Services says the average out-of-pocket cost in Kansas for individual health insurance through the new federal marketplace is $67 a month. Bryan Thompson has more.
The report says the actual premium averages $290 a month, but most people qualify for a federal tax credit that covers three-fourths of that amount.
In fact, a little more than three out of every four Kansans buying insurance through the federal exchange qualify for some level of income-based tax credit.
Kansas Senator Jerry Moran says a VA pilot program offering timely, quality health care to rural veterans is being allowed to expire in a few months, even though VA officials tell members of Congress no decision has been made.
As Bryan Thompson explains, Moran and four of his colleagues have sent a letter to the VA Secretary, asking for answers.
A partnership between hospitals in Wichita has a lofty goal: to make Wichita the safest place in the nation to undergo surgery. As Bryan Thompson explains, the key is a standardized pre-op checklist, no matter where the surgery is being performed, or by whom.