A federal move to rely more heavily on the private sector for veterans’ health care ran into problems because the hospitals and other providers in Louisiana aren’t getting paid quickly.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is more than $35 million behind in paying private Louisiana hospitals, specialty care physicians and others, according to the state’s veterans agency chief.

“We are burning the trust of a lot of providers if we ask them to wait two, three, four years for payment,” state Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David LaCerte said. “They are simply not going to see any more veterans.”

The delay in claims payments comes as U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are pushing legislation aimed at fixing problems in the veterans’ health care system.

The legislation calls for the construction of more VA medical facilities, the hiring of more VA doctors and nurses, and embarking on a two-year pilot project to allow veterans to see private doctors if they have long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

The federal VA is in the process of constructing a modern hospital complex in New Orleans on the same campus as the state’s Academic Medical Center — a major training ground of the next generation of physicians, nurses and others in the medical field.

LaCerte said the problem seems to be rooted in the VA’s Jackson, Mississippi, office, which processes Louisiana claims for services delivered outside the VA health care system.

He said the claims are being processed manually.

LaCerte said he got some assurance of help during a visit this week with federal VA officials in Washington, D.C., including authority to fill 33 positions to help with claims processing.

The 33 positions aren’t new but positions on which a hiring freeze will be lifted, LaCerte said. He said about 50 people are doing the work today.

In addition, LaCerte said a promise was made to allow Austin, Texas, and Denver regional offices help with the claims overflow.

“This region has the highest payment backlog in the entire country,” LaCerte said. And Louisiana’s situation is “the worst in our region,” he said.

He said Louisiana’s congressional delegation has been told it was a “software issue. It somewhat is a software issue but it is also a human capital issue.”

Louisiana Hospital Association President Paul Salles said the professional group is planning three meetings in August in Baton Rouge, Alexandria and Shreveport, during which those who have pending claims can sit down with VA officials from Jackson to try to get to the root of the problem.

“We really don’t know what all the issues are. There have been some fairly significant delays in the hospitals getting paid,” Salles said.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB.

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