Living in a rural area means different things to different folks. When I lived in North Carolina, rural to me was a long drive down a bumpy two-lane road between cow pastures and tobacco fields. In Florida, it was ‘way out by the turnpike,’ with only sawgrass and the Everglades as far as I could see.
When I moved to Alaska, rural took on a whole different meaning. It was a far cry from the beaches of Florida and the heat of the South; this area was isolated. The road system only goes so far, and many places are unreachable except by plane, boat or snow machine. Depending on where you live, access to health care can range from a small one-room clinic with telehealth communication between the main hospital and the village, to a larger hospital on the road system. Rivers become ice roads for travel to and from villages in the winter, and are open for boats in summer. Keep in mind, Alaska is twice the size of Texas and covers over 586,000 square miles.
Veterans make up almost 17 percent of Alaska’s adult population. Many have never registered with VA due to travel problems, lack of information or simply because they already receive their health care through the Tribal Health System. In many areas, this is the only available health care for them.
Before she became director of VA’s Alaska Healthcare System this year, Susan Yeager was the rural health outreach coordinator. She was responsible for setting up 26 formal agreements with tribal organizations to ensure that Veterans with a service-related condition receive support and care from VA. Every Veteran has the right to be counted and receive VA benefits. Every Veteran.
The Alaska Territorial Guard was an unpaid reserve force with the Army back in 1942. It was organized in response to the attacks on the U.S. during World War II. For these Veterans, health care wasn’t exactly what was needed, as most received benefits through their tribal organizations. What they were missing was the other benefits associated with having served their country, not just health care. Many weren’t aware of what they were eligible for and had never heard of compensation for their service or service connected care. Reaching out to these elderly Veterans, hearing their stories and assisting them with their VA registration after so many years was one of the most memorable times in my career.
Prior to the start of the VA’s Rural Health Outreach program, many Veterans chose not to enroll or didn’t have the information they needed to begin the process. The nearest VA facility is sometimes more than 500 miles away; an expensive plane trip coming in from the remote areas in Alasksa. Telephone communications can be complicated, which brings us to My HealtheVet and secure messaging.
My HealtheVet is an online resource for Veterans to be able to see their health records, check appointments, refill prescriptions and talk to doctors and other members of their health care team at VA facilities.
But many homes in those remote parts of Alaska don’t have phones and depend on community buildings for access to phones and computers. As you can imagine, trying to wait for a return call can be frustrating and time consuming. For Veterans located in these areas, My HealtheVet and secure messaging are their lifelines to VA. With the 10th anniversary of My HealtheVet this year, I went in search of these rural Veterans to see what it is that keeps them connected.
Barrow, Ak. is 723 flight miles from the Anchorage VA Medical Center or 504 miles from Fairbanks – the closest clinic. One Veteran I spoke with in Barrow, Daryl Kooley, finds My HealtheVet and secure messaging to be a key component of VA health care – encouraging and educating Veterans on taking charge of their own health care.
“For Veterans located in remote areas such as myself, I can honestly say that this has been an exceptional tool,” Kooley said.
Not only does Kooley communicate with his health care team via secure messaging, but he frequently uses the site as a resource for his health care questions.
“I periodically review Spotlight and use the medical library to acquaint myself with the most up-to-date information regarding my service-connected medical conditions,” he said.
He said he also uses the online tools to research over-the-counter medications and supplements, so he can find and avoid any negative interactions between those and his prescription medications.
Alaska Veterans have completed more than 28,000 online prescription refills this year.
“Online prescription refill is so much easier than trying to put in all my information over the phone,” said Don Roberts, a Vietnam Veteran who lives in Kodiak. “I just send my doc a secure message when I need a new prescription and it gets taken care of faster than going back and forth with phone calls.”
Every day more and more Veterans reach out to their health care teams through secure messaging. Veterans ranging from 18 to 80 online – communicating, researching, participating with their health care teams, taking charge of their health care with the best on line personal health care record, My HealtheVet and Secure Messaging.