Changes are coming for area veterans receiving health care through the Veterans Administration in Emporia.
United States Senator Jerry Moran and Veterans Administration of Eastern Kansas Health Care System Director Rudy Klopfer discussed the future of health care for area veterans through the VA MISSION Act during a town hall Saturday morning at American Legion Post No. 5.
The VA MISSION Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump on June 6, 2018, aims to make a number of improvements to the current VA health system. Those improvements include consolidating VA community care programs into a single program, expanding eligibility for assistance for family caregivers, strengthening VA’s ability to recruit and retain the best medical providers and strengthening the VA’s infrastructure.
It also includes provisions to create a community care network which will allow eligible veterans to seek care locally. The VA announced the Emporia VA outpatient clinic — which is only open two days per week — would close its doors in June. Klopfer said local partners like Newman Regional Health will help area veterans through the transition, allowing them to receive the care they need.
“We are still providing care for our veterans,” Klopfer said. “Our veterans have the opportunity to choose where they will receive their care.”
Klopfer said roughly 30 percent of local veterans who currently receive care through the local VA clinic have stated they would prefer to continue care through the VA in Topeka or other area locations. Another 55 percent have stated they would prefer seeking care within the community.
“We feel this is an opportunity to expand services to veterans,” he said. “Rather than just primary care or mental health two days a week, they can have it every single day here in the community or with us in Topeka or in our other clinics.”
Moran said he believes the changes will be beneficial, given the amount of time veterans have to wait for care at the local clinic. He said he has been pushing for the VA to allow veterans to seek care within their communities for years. Provisions in the Mission Act account for distances veterans need to travel for primary and specialty care, as well as wait times.
“When I was a Congressman and not a Senator, I represented this congressional district that includes Lyon County,” he said. “It’s larger than the state of Illinois. There was no VA hospital here, so our veterans had long distances to go, and I pushed the VA to open up outpatient clinics to bring care closer to home.”
Moran said it’s a hardship for many veterans to have to travel long distances to receive care.
“We found that community care could be of value to many veterans,” he said. “This occurred about four years ago when we saw the scandal in the VA, the long waiting lists and presumably veterans died while waiting for appointments that didn’t exist.”
The Veterans Choice Act of 2014 came out of that scandal, Moran said, allowing veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or are unable to receive timely care to receive care locally instead.
“That got veterans quicker care in some instances, and more providers of care for those veterans,” he said. “We also saw the VA didn’t do it quite the way we would have hoped, so we’ve now changed the law.”
Now, Moran said, the focus is what is in the best interest of the veteran.
“That’s, in my view, a different standard,” he said. “The VA found ways to keep veterans from coming. I think the attitude has changed at the VA. They’re now looking for ways to care for veterans in whatever fashion best meets that veteran’s need.”
Klopfer said he was optimistic that the VA MISSION Act would be beneficial to area veterans.
“Services may be changing from a physical building, but they will be here, and there will be more services available to them,” he said. “We want to increase access to care. Access is not just for primary care and mental health, but there’s services. It could be surgery services, long-term care needs, tele-health that’s available to them. Also, we want to be good stewards for taxpayer dollars, your dollars, community dollars, and having a nurse here for only two days per week, the efficiency is only below 50 percent.”
Klopfer said the MISSION Act also allows for urgent care, giving eligible veterans access to urgent walk-in care. In order to receive this benefit, veterans will select a provider in VA’s community care network and may be charged a copayment for that service. Newman Regional Health will be a local provider in the VA’s network.
Veterans present for the town hall had questions about what the changes would mean for them.
Ron Whitney said he still had some questions about the MISSION Act, but was optimistic moving forward.
“They are really making some progress,” he said. “Getting everybody working together on this is really going to be a nice plus once they get it sorted out. The fact that the clinic is closed here, they’re really right on target saying that it’s only open two days a week so it’s not effective. With the closing and making all of the other changes with the MISSION Act, it’s going to take care of a lot of these other issues that were not being taken care of before. It’ll be a positive move in the long run.”
While he has never had issues accessing health care through the VA health system, he said he knew a lot of other veterans who have.
“I’ve always gone to Topeka,” Whitney said. “That was my choice and I’ve just always gone to Topeka. The clinic closing didn’t really affect me at all, but I know a lot of people it did affect, so I can understand their concern. I’m very happy with Topeka and I go to Topeka as needed. I have no complaints at all, and I’ve been very fortunate with my relationship with the VA.”
Roland Mayhew, president of the Kansas chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he believed the changes will help veterans who have had problems accessing care.
“You’ve got to know who your primary doctor is and it’s one of those questions where if you go from point A to point B, you need to know who to go to for permission for care,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem, really. I’m a volunteer driver and transportation is a big issue, too. If you volunteer at the VA, you know what’s going on.”
Mayhew said Moran has always been supportive of veterans and was pleased that the senator has continued to push for improvements for care, especially when it comes to mental health care.
“The biggest problem we’ve got is suicide,” he said. “We can’t get enough word out. There’s about 14 out of 20 veterans who aren’t in the system, and if they were in the system, they’d be able to get the help they need for mental health. That’s the biggest problem we have.”
After the town hall, Moran stuck around for one of his 105-county listening stop tours, where he opened the floor to the community to hear their concerns.
Education, access to mental health care, Russia and Moran’s decision to block Trump’s emergency declaration for border security topped concerns for those present.
Moran reiterated a point he made earlier this month about his vote, saying he believed it was important to increase security at the border but believed the declaration was unconstitutional.