Montana, Alaska site visits help VA move forward in improving care in for rural Veterans


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In an effort to enhance partnerships between VA and our community providers, I recently traveled to Montana and Alaska VA Medical Centers where I was able to listen and learn about how those two states are providing service to Veterans in the community.

During the Montana visit, staff from Sen. Jon Tester’s office and representatives from Health Net joined me throughout. During my Alaska trip, I was accompanied at the town hall meetings by staff from Rep. Don Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan’s offices. It was a pleasure to sit down and meet with local community providers, Veterans service organizations and VA staff who are working hard to ensure Montana and Alaska Veterans have the best access to health care we can offer.

During both visits, I had the opportunity to discuss in detail the challenges rural Veterans face in accessing high quality health care.  For instance, did you know that only about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural America despite the fact that nearly one-four of the population lives in these areas? Due to their higher rates of military service, rural Americans represent a significant proportion of the Veteran population, with 30 percent of U.S. Veterans living in rural areas. This figure is expected to increase in the years to come.

We discussed the importance of our partnership with Congress as we look to improve VA Community Care.  We cannot consolidate the multiple community care programs without the help of Congress.

I recognize that different areas of the country experience different challenges with the Choice Program.  The challenges in New York are different from the challenges in Montana or Alaska and Maine.  Our contracting partners Tri West and Health Net and I felt it was important for them to accompany me on these trips.  Health Net directly heard and understood Montana Veteran and provider concerns while Tri West attended the Veteran and Provider town halls in Alaska.  I welcome their input as they continue to partner with us on implementing this complex national program while improving their processes to best serve our Veterans.

In Montana, we hosted a roundtable with community care providers just as we have for other visits.  This allowed providers to discuss issues directly with Health Net and myself.  I cannot emphasize enough the importance of our community providers and the need to continue to strengthen these partnerships, as well as our partnerships with other key stakeholders. In addition to the provider roundtable, we also met with VSOs. They expressed their challenges with the Choice Program, but appreciated that Health Net and I were at the table with them working to develop solutions to their problems.

In Alaska, we held town hall meetings with Veterans and VA staff in both Fairbanks and Anchorage, and visited Minto, a remote village outside of Fairbanks. Our discussions centered on their experiences with the Choice Program, both as a Veteran accessing care, and as employees administering care or helping a Veteran navigate the system. We also held productive meetings with two Native Alaskan community health organizations — the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the SouthCentral Foundation — where we explored what role these community-based organizations would play in the future of VA community care. I got to see first-hand many of the unique programs Alaska is using to deliver high-quality, innovative care to their Veterans, including a telehealth program that connects the patient population to providers in Idaho.

On both trips, I had the chance to observe the various processes our staff uses to arrange community care for Veterans and what could be improved.  Like the VSOs and community providers, the tone of the meeting ended on a positive note and staff had a more optimistic view.

Providers, VSOs and staff appreciated the in-person visits, especially the time we took to really listen and understand the challenges they face.  These visits highlight what can happen when VA, our contracting partners, community providers, VSOs, and Congress work together for Veterans.  I look forward to future site visits around the country and the opportunity to learn more about how we can improve the Choice Program and VA Community Care.

Author

Baligh Yehia

Dr. Baligh Yehia is VA’s deputy undersecretary for Health for Community Care.