Veterans will go to the front of the line at a private New Jersey health care system under a new program being started in response to problems with the federal Veterans Administration's health system.
Under the initiative announced Tuesday, veterans living in the seven southern New Jersey counties are being promised same-day primary care appointments and help from health care navigators at Cooper University Health Care. Veterans would be served at the hospital in Camden and at system clinics in southern New Jersey.
"We'll worry later about who pays or whether or not Cooper absorbs that cost," said Cooper chairman George Norcross III, who is also a Democratic political powerbroker and the brother of New Jersey congressional candidate Donald Norcross.
The program is to start July 1. It comes after the VA reported long wait times for appointments at VA health clinics across the country. The VA report released last week showed that new patients at the VA system in Philadelphia, which serves southern New Jersey, waited an average 43 days for a primary care visit. At the northern New Jersey branch, it was 25 days.
The VA later clarified that average wait times at many facilities are likely much shorter than first reported but the bottom line is the same: Many veterans are still waiting too long for care.
George Norcross said he is hoping other health care providers in New Jersey and across the country start making the same commitment as Cooper. Norcross said it's not enough for Congress to consider a bill that would require appointments within 30 days, and that's why Cooper is trying to do more.
In some cases, the VA does pay for veterans' care outside its system, such as for services that are not available at the nearest VA center. Since 2011, it has been paying for care at private health systems for veterans in remote parts of Arizona, Kansas, Maine, Montana, and Virginia as part of a pilot program set to expire later this year.
Cooper President and CEO Adrienne Kirby said the company doesn't have an estimate on how much the service may cost. Hospital officials say that many veterans are eligible for coverage through employers, Medicaid or Medicare. And for others, Cooper can seek reimbursement from the VA.
Elizabeth Lietz, a spokeswoman for the American Hospital Association, said the group does not track such services as Cooper University plans to offer veterans but she is not aware of any other hospitals or clinics launching similar efforts in response to troubles at the VA.
Several veterans attended Tuesday's announcement at Cooper's main campus in Camden. Among them, Sam Podietz said he thinks the problems with the VA have been overblown in some cases, but said the Cooper pledge would help lower-income veterans.
"I think we have more veterans using the system than the VA is prepared to handle," said Podietz, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1959 until 1963.