Louisiana veterans are running up debt because a federal agency isn’t paying their medical bills on time, according to the chief of the state’s veterans agency.

Federal law authorizes the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health coverage for eligible military veterans when they are “financially liable” for emergency medical services provided at a local non-VA hospital or ambulance company.

But the VA division Congress recently put in charge of getting the bills paid isn’t doing its job, said David LaCerte, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Unfortunately, VA employees have ignored the intent of Congress and refused to pay these bills on time, leaving hundreds of Louisiana veterans with medical debt they should not have incurred,” LaCerte wrote members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation. The delays reportedly have lead to “negative impacts” to the credit of 229 Louisiana veterans, he said.

In addition, LaCerte said Thursday that inadequate VA outreach has left many Louisiana veterans unaware of potential financial risks.

“The VA outreach to people and explanations needs to be better,” LaCerte said.

In July, the VA owed Louisiana medical providers more than $35 million. By February, the debt rose to an estimated $48 million, according to the Louisiana Hospital Association.

“Louisiana’s veterans sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and they deserve to have their medical bills paid on time,” LHA President Paul Salles said. “Congress needs to put an end to the VA backlog and require the VA to improve outreach to our veterans with unpaid bills.”

Salles urged veterans who have received emergency medical services from a Louisiana hospital or ambulance provider within the last two years to check with the provider to see if the VA has paid their claim. If the claim remains unpaid, Salles urged veterans to share their stories with Congress.

Meanwhile, LaCerte asked Louisiana’s congressional delegation to push for an expedited U.S. House and Senate oversight hearing “to ensure timely and appropriate payments for veterans’ emergency medical care in local communities and to improve VA outreach to veterans who do not know their bills remained unpaid.”

At the same time, LaCerte’s office is trying to raise awareness among veterans of their rights and how they can contest their credit reports.

“The VA has chosen not to inform Louisiana veterans that their claims remain unprocessed or to proactively educate veterans of their appeal rights in the event of a denial,” LaCerte wrote. “Instead, the VA has told providers to ‘bill the veteran’ if a claim is denied and no appeal is filed.”

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.