More than 8 million Veterans are enrolled in VA healthcare across the country. To meet the needs of this large and diverse Veteran population, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) partners with nongovernmental organizations to expand and augment health care services. These partnerships allow VHA facilities and their partners to find solutions to difficult issues Veterans often face.
The VHA Community Partnership Challenge is an opportunity to highlight noteworthy non-monetary partnerships. This year’s contest theme was “Veteran Access to Health Care Services,” with a keen focus on replicable partnerships. Access to care and consistency in best practice are top priorities for Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin. The winning facilities were the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, and the San Francisco VA Health Care System. An honorable mention went to the national Office of Geriatrics and Extended Care, Hospice and Palliative Care.
Tennessee Valley Healthcare System
Many Veterans experience challenges when adjusting to college life after their military service. Traumatic brain injuries, posttraumatic stress, and depression can make the transition to academia even more difficult. A new partnership between the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System and Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) is making sure their student Veterans are fully supported throughout that transition. MTSU recently opened the Veterans and Family Center, which offers an array of services to student Veterans. The partnership, an example of VA’s commitment to core ICARE values, is a collaboration among peer advisors, Veteran benefits advisors, school enrollment advisors, employment advisors, and a VA mental health provider working to accomplish the center’s mission: assist current Servicemembers, Veterans and family members from military to college, then from college to a successful career.
The partnership works to accomplish its mission by promoting enrollment among Veterans, encouraging Veterans by providing them with a comprehensive support structure, assist Veteran students with future employment opportunities, educating MTSU faculty, staff, and students on student Veteran needs, and expanding the Veteran-education knowledge base. All 922 Veterans enrolled at MTSU have access to the center’s services. The partnership can be replicated by identifying a college campus with a large student Veteran population with an administration committed to investing in their success. A similar partnership idea is to provide training to school faculty and staff regarding the unique issues Veterans face.
‘The core characteristics are not just words. They are living and breathing examples, evident in every Veteran that walks through the door of MTSU Veterans and Families Center; every VA and MTSU staff that played a role in making this partnership possible; or every affiliation that gave its support to this initiative.’ – Leigh Ann Urbanavage
Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital – Bedford
The Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, is partnering with a variety of first responders throughout the community to increase collaboration and provide training on the unique issues facing Veterans and pertinent information about the VA healthcare system. The training sessions are led by a Veteran VA Police officer and a VA mental health clinician.
With the critical goal of creating a culture that no longer stigmatizes mental health issues, this unique cross-disciplinary model continues to expand by including local and state police, fire departments, emergency medical response services, park services, and police academies. Since 2014, the partnership has trained approximately 900 first responders, 225 of whom are Veterans. A participant mentioned his agency experienced a recent surge of Veteran suicides, so learning about prevention efforts to combat this challenge was welcomed.
One noted he enjoyed hearing Veteran stories and experiences throughout the training and learned new ways to deal with PTSD. Another added the training gives real examples of what Veterans may experience – PTSD, isolation, and suicide – and how to work with Veterans who are experiencing those issues. The program is easily replicated by creating a collaborative group including a Veteran police officer or fire rescue worker alongside a mental health specialist or social work clinician.
Program Manager Elizabeth Price stated, “The primary tools and materials are already in place and the key to success is using practical examples, concrete resources, and having flexibility with scheduling.” This pioneering partnership isn’t just training first responders who work with Veterans, it is also helping Veterans who are first responders.
San Francisco VA Health Care System
Veterans can now MOVE! at several Ys in San Francisco due to a groundbreaking partnership with the San Francisco VA Health Care System’s Strength and Wellness Program (SWP). This program is not only focusing on exercise and fitness, but also helping Veterans with more than just their weight. Christian Dillon, a SWP recreation therapist, shared the partnership supports the overall health of Veterans, which targets physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. The program staff works with Veterans who may be clinically depressed, experience symptoms of PTSD, or isolated and experience social anxiety. The program design encouraged Veterans to come out of isolation and participate in group sessions, which will benefit them on multiple levels.
“Before coming into the program I was unemployed, broke and struggling, feeling down on my luck, and maybe even depressed. I felt lost, wandering aimlessly through a San Francisco fog, a ghost of a soldier with no purpose or direction, a shell of my former self. The program allowed me to focus on my mind through my body to create a mental and at the same time physical calm and well-being.” – Strength and Wellness Program Veteran.
Leading the way for new VA-YMCA partnerships across the country, the San Francisco program serves approximately 200-plus Veterans per year, operating at three YMCA locations in the Bay area (Stonestown, Richmond District and Presidio). The partners hope to expand the program in the near future and serve more Veterans. Veterans enrolled at a local VA receive a referral from their primary care provider to join the Strength and Wellness Program. After completing a fitness assessment, the Veteran’s placement is determined based on their results and preferences. Options include the MOVE program, the Strength and Wellness Circuit Training Program, functional flexibility or yoga classes, and an individualized 12-week YMCA fitness or aquatics program. Dillon commented, “The YMCA treats Veterans with respect, understanding, and dignity… it’s like working out with a family.”
Honorable Mention: Office of Geriatrics and Extended Care, Hospice and Palliative Care.
The Office of Geriatrics and Extended Care, Hospice and Palliative Care received an honorable mention for headlining We Honor Veterans campaign, which boasts an innovative cooperation with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. This successful and inventive operation has connected more than 2,900 community hospice programs with a network dedicated to improving the care of terminally ill Veterans.
Since 2011, We Honor Veterans partners throughout the nation have submitted numerous stories demonstrating how facilities go above and beyond for Veterans. From coordinating “last dreams” for Veteran patients such as Honor Flights and replaced medals, obtaining dress blues, to finally recognizing a woman as a Tuskegee Airman by giving her an iconic Tuskegee red jacket and medal, these stories represent the significant efforts VA partners made to benefit Veterans. The movement to support the unique needs of our Veterans through compassionate listening, respectful inquiry, and grateful acknowledgment of their service is remarkable and noteworthy.
About the author: Heather Platter, a HSHPS fellow at the VHA Office of Community Engagement