BRATTLEBORO—Despite increased demands on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, the director of the White River Junction VA Medical Center says that northern New England veterans are getting access to care in a timely manner.
At a town hall-style forum held at the Brattleboro VA outpatient clinic on July 24, Deborah Amdur said the White River facility books 24,000 health care appointments a month, and 95 percent of those appointments are scheduled within 30 days.
Access to VA care has been a point of contention over the past year as military veterans at other VA hospitals around the nation have had to endure lengthy waits for medical treatment.
“It’s been a year of many challenges for the VA nationally,” said Amdur, who added that one of the ways the VA has been dealing with health access problems has been expanding its network of community-based outpatient clinics (CBOC).
Brattleboro is one of eight CBOCs in northern New England. Amdur said there are about 800 veterans who use the Brattleboro CBOC as their primary care provider.
“It’s really amazing to see the growth of the CBOCs,” she said, adding that there is plenty of room for more veterans to use these clinics for primary care. This, in turn, cuts down on the amount of travel for veterans from southern Vermont to White River Junction.
Recognizing the challenges of a system that is simultaneously dealing with veterans of World War II and Korea who are in their 80s and 90s, Vietnam veterans in their 60s, and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in their 20s and 30s, Amdur said the VA last year introduced a program called Veterans Choice, which gives veterans the option to see doctors outside the VA system, at VA expense, if they cannot receive care within 30 days of making an appointment at a VA hospital or clinic.
To qualify, a veteran has to live more than 40 miles away from a VA hospital or clinic. The exception to that rule is in New Hampshire. Because the state does not have a full-service VA hospital such as White River Junction, the mileage requirement is reduced to 20 miles.
“The goal is to deliver care that is timely and convenient,” Amdur said. “It is a right that every veteran has.”
As for veterans waiting to get VA approval to enter the system, Nancy Renehan of the Veterans Benefits Administration said her office, which handles northern New England, has about 600 benefit claims pending, and only 60 percent are from Vermont veterans.
The average wait time has gone down to 124 days, she said, and work is being done to reduce that further.
Concerns brought up by veterans in attendance mainly focused on emergency care. As Dr. Richard Orlan, the head physician at the Brattleboro CBOC, pointed out, the clinic is not set up as a walk-in clinic for urgent care.
Veterans were reminded that if they had a health emergency, they should go to the emergency room first, then notify the VA within 72 hours of the visit so that the cost can be picked up by the VA.
Other than that, there was praise for the White River Junction VA and its associated clinics.
“The care I’ve gotten is excellent, a lot better than in civilian hospitals,” said Bob Jolicoeur of Jaffery, N.H., an Air Force veteran who served from 1955 to 1959. “People are actually listening to you.”
Mike LeClaire, service officer for American Legion Post 5 in Brattleboro, is also a volunteer driver for the Disabled American Veterans.
“I’ve given rides to veterans who have been in VA hospitals all over the country,” he said. “and every one of them says White River Junction is the best.”
LeClaire pointed toward Amdur and praised the work she has done. “When you call her, she answers the phone, and when you ask for something to get done, it gets done.”
Amdur credits the White River Junction staff for the high quality of care. She said she is proud that 30 percent of the staff are veterans themselves.
“We take our mission very seriously,” she said. “We want every veteran to feel welcome, to feel respected, and to feel appreciated.”