VA addresses health care issues in SLV

The beleaguered Veterans' Administration attempts to address the issues facing rural veterans. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

How to serve those who served - that was the question addressed at a meeting organized by the Veterans Coalition of the San Luis Valley and attended by representatives of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other health care providers at Adams State University on Friday.

The meeting is the first of its kind since May, and the first since the designation of a new full-time Veterans Affairs doctor in Alamosa after the departure of the prior VA doctor in April. The months between left many Valley veterans in the lurch, with many having to travel to Front Range cities for care.

The arrival of Dr. Robert Rice at the Alamosa VA clinic signals an improvement in services for the Valley's nearly 5,000 veterans, said Dan Warvi, a Denver VA spokesman, but added that veterans should explore other methods provided by the VA for obtaining and managing care.

Veterans who have been or will be waiting more than 30 days for VA care, or live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic can qualify for a Choice Card, which allows them to seek care from non-VA health care providers.

Health Net Federal Services, a company that contracts with the VA, is working with health care providers to join the Choice Program, which now includes SLV Health, Valley-Wide Health Systems, and SLV Behavioral Health Group.

Veterans with preferred providers who are not yet members of the Choice Program can call Health Net, who will attempt to bring the provider on board with the program.

"I understand the veterans who have had difficulty in the past using the Choice Program are reluctant to use it again, because they felt there were no providers out there for them," said Linda Cook, a "Choice Champion" spokesperson for the Eastern Colorado Health Care System (ECHCS). "But we do know Health Net has been working diligently to get providers on board to take care of our veterans."

Cook said veterans having difficulty signing up for the program can call 720-857-5976 for assistance.

SLV Behavioral Health Group has been credentialed through the Choice Program for several months but has yet to have any veterans attempt to use Choice Card benefits, said Kristina Daniel, Chief Operating Officer of SLV Behavioral Health Group.

"We are passionate about making sure veterans know how to access emergency behavioral health care," said Daniel. "We do and will always provide 24/7 access to emergency crisis services, and we also have a crisis living room that anyone in our community can access, including veterans. We encourage anyone to walk into that."

The VA also encourages veterans to use its online offerings.

"We really want our veterans to embrace the My HealtheVet portal," said Warvi. My HealtheVet is an Internet-based communications system veterans can use to communicate with health care providers.

Warvi said the system is useful because requests can be responded to quickly.

"For example," Warvi said, "my provider is at the Golden VA clinic. When I had a question about my medication, I sent my provider a note, and I got an answer from the nurse in five minutes."

"With a phone call, there's challenges," said Warvi. "Only the person who gets that call knows you have a question about your appointment of medication. With My HealtheVet, the whole health care team can see it."

Warvi said the website can be intimidating, but he hopes a planned revamp of the vets.gov website in November will improve that.

VA officials also introduced Nate Nidiffer, the new regional manager of Southern Colorado VA clinics. Nidiffer is an Air Force and Army veteran and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I look forward to partnering with anybody here in a positive way forward to help our veterans access care," said Nidiffer.

Nidiffer emphasized that veterans can always access the Veterans Crisis Line, which is manned at all times.

"One of the misconceptions is that it's a suicide hotline," said Nidiffer. "It's not. It's for all types of crises a veteran might encounter. If you're a family member and you want to talk to your veteran and you're having difficulty starting that conversation, family members can call the crisis line for advice on how to approach that conversation."

Nidiffer said that patients who wish to access specialty services in Albuquerque rather than Denver can submit a request through the VA, though because Albuquerque is in a different coverage area, providers there have the right of first refusal based on their available resources.

The VA is committed to ensuring that women veterans in rural areas receive comparable care to those in urban areas, said Carole Donsbach, Women Veteran Health Program Manager for ECHCS.

"We've had a designated women's health provider that is available and conducting visits four times a week at the Alamosa clinic," Donsbach said. "This provider has been trained in women's health as much as primary care and also in gender-specific care."

Donsbach added that ECHCS has an OB-GYN in Denver, and another in Colorado Springs who makes occasional visits to Pueblo. She said women veterans can call her at 303-899-8020 ext. 3880.

Reactions to the meeting were generally positive.

"I'm pretty impressed," said Jerry Menges, a 101st Airborne Division veteran who served in Vietnam. "The panel that was here was willing and helpful and direct. I understand their frustrations and limitations. They did a great job under the circumstances."