Long drives continue for most northern Michigan veterans, despite new VA health program

Dec 22, 2014

Credit Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center

Veterans in northern Michigan often have to drive a long way to see their doctors. That’s because official VA hospitals are mostly downstate, like the one in Saginaw.

Congress passed legislation over the summer that was meant to change that temporarily. It pays for more local, private care options for those enrolled in health plans through the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

But in Michigan, most veterans don’t qualify under the rules.

‘A long friggin’ trip’

Jerry Cameron lives in Mancelona, just south and east of Gaylord.

When he needs a physical, or to get his blood pressure checked, he can go to the VA clinic in Gaylord. But for specialty care – he needs to go to a VA hospital.

Often that means a drive to Saginaw –about 150 miles one way – which Cameron calls a “long friggin’ trip.”

Cameron has some complex health issues right now. So he might need to see his eye doctor on a Monday morning – but his ear, nose and throat doctor is only around on Tuesday.

“You can see the scheduling problems obviously,” Cameron says. “And each [doctor] says, ‘we’ll see you back here in six months,’ and then they schedule you. And you try to get the schedules to be on the same day but a lot of the times they can’t do that.”

Cameron says he often gets a hotel room for the night if he’s got appointments spread out. And he pays for that out of his own pocket.

Cameron seems like a prime candidate for the new VA program.

It allows veterans who live far from VA facilities to get local, private healthcare instead. So Jerry Cameron could go see his specialist at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City and the VA would cover it, instead of him having to drive all the way to Saginaw.

But Cameron doesn’t qualify under the law.

40-mile rule

Peggy Kearns, the director of the VA medical center in Saginaw, says veterans must live more than 40 miles from any VA medical facility.

“So that could be a hospital or a clinic,” Kearns says.

That disqualifies Cameron because he lives closer than 40 miles to his primary care clinic in Gaylord, even though a lot of the time he has to drive to Saginaw or beyond for VA doctors.

That’s true for most veterans in northern Michigan because there are also clinics in Traverse City, Grayling and Mackinaw City.

Dan Benishek represents northern Michigan in U-S Congress. He says the VA’s interpretation of this rule goes against the spirit of the law.

“It’s not what the members of Congress intended the law to be,” Benishek says.

VA officials say only about 100 veterans in Michigan qualify right now – according to the 40-mile rule. That’s out of 170 thousand people enrolled in veterans’ healthcare in the entire state.

“The intent of the law is that people have a choice,” Benishek says.
“This is what you deal with when you deal with a bureaucracy the size of the VA.”

‘The drive is too much for me’

John Morrison lives outside of Gainesville Florida. He has cancer and wants to move to northern Michigan, where his sister lives.

But then he’d be driving to Saginaw two or three times a week.  

“I would love to move back to Traverse City but the drive is too much for me,” Morrison says.

He says it would be much easier for most veterans if they could just to go to a local doctor no matter what.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon, and the choice program itself is temporary. It won’t last longer than three years as the law currently stands.

Unless that changes, the few veterans in the state who can go see a local doctor right now will likely have to start making long drives once again.