Veterans, Doctors Alike Stranded as Vet Choice Fails to Pay its Bills

One day in 2016, Army veteran Jason White finished cleaning his pistol, wrapped his hand around the grip, and put the barrel to his temple.

He’d had enough. Five years after his deployment in Afghanistan ended when an IED explosion pinned him between two vehicles, he was 100 percent disabled, in pain and still at war inside. This time, though, it felt like he was fighting the enemy alone.

“I’d had three deaths in the family, and four guys in my unit who’d committed suicide,” he said. “Everything was going wrong, everything was bad.”

White pulled the trigger, but the weapon jammed.

After his wife learned what he had done she accompanied him to the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs, where White said he was told he faced a six-month wait to see a therapist.

“They knew I was suicidal and still it was six months to talk to someone,” said White, 30. “My wife was extremely mad.”

A few days later, White got a call saying the VA had referred him to the Veterans Choice Program, a federally-funded initiative that would pay for his visits to a provider in the community. An appointment with participating Colorado Springs psychologist Michael Sunich was set up for the following week.

“I was skeptical of seeing someone to talk about all the issues to begin with … things I wouldn’t even talk with my wife about … but I started seeing him weekly,” said White, whose five years of active duty had left him with a crushed spine, severe traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder and insomnia, among other debilitating ailments.

After several months of meeting with Sunich, White says his life “turned around.”

“Without him, I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Gulf War veteran Frederick Zappone said he feels the same.

“I went to Desert Storm and came back and there wasn’t the help for us, the people to talk to. A lot of soldiers turned to the bottle, or to drugs. My battle buddy didn’t get the help he needed and he killed himself,” said Zappone, 52, who sees Sunich through Veterans Choice for one-on-one and group sessions. “Somebody like doc is gold to me. There’s no question he’s saved my life, or saved me from taking the life of someone else.”

Their “doc” debated whether to let the men know he’d been treating them for free for months, and battling Health Net Federal Services — the third-party manager of Vet Choice for the VA — at almost every step.

“This isn’t their fault. They checked all the right boxes,” said Sunich, who’s worked with veterans since 1980 and considers the job more calling than career. “But I checked all the right boxes, too.”

Sunich’s Gone West Consulting and Psychological Services is a modest private practice based in a couple rooms in a complex off South Eighth Street. Overhead’s low, but after months of submitting claims and receiving no payments from Health Net — nor a reissued check for $4,000 after the original never arrived — Sunich said his office bills were past due and the pressure was starting to affect his life at home, where he and his wife, Julie, are raising 14-year-old twins.

By the end of 2017, around 85 percent of Gone West’s patients were veterans referred through the Choice program, and the VA owed him more than $20,000.

“People are going to be told next month that they won’t be getting rent, etcetera,” said Julie Sunich in January. “If we were independently wealthy and he was retired and wanted to do this for the benefit of the country … but that’s not really where we are right now. It is making an impact on our family.”

Julie reminded her husband that if payments didn’t start showing up soon, he was going to have to consider some hard decisions.

“We’ll get paid,” Michael assured his wife.

“Yeah, maybe,” Julie said. “But when?”

A month later, the check for $4,000 finally arrived.

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SOURCE: Stephanie Earls
The Gazette