LOWER TOWNSHIP – Veterans gathered at the Millman Center last week to hear about a new Telehealth teleconferencing service, which allows veterans to see a doctor without leaving home.
Area veterans, advocates and legislators attended the Cape May County Veterans Symposium on Nov. 16, at the Millman Center in Lower Township, to hear about updates on patient care. The veterans heard from a panel representing VISN4, a network of nine Veterans Administration medical facilities in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Joe Torok, the VISN4 Telehealth manager, said the service could help about 80 percent of the clients served by the VA who are currently having difficulty traveling to appointments. The reception to the announcement of the program was mixed, however, and was tempered by complaints about the current system available to Cape May County veterans.
Joe Griffies, a veteran who hosts the local Welcome Home Veterans radio program, asked what was going to happen to the remaining 20 percent who could not be served through Telehealth. Torok said there are people for whom the Telehealth system would not work, and they would have to come in to see a doctor. However, he said, with 80 percent of the clients not coming in to VA facilities, it allows a greater ease of scheduling appointments for the 20 percent who do.
“Not everyone is on board with Telehealth, but for some it is an absolutely wonderful thing,” Torok said.
Torok said there is skepticism on both sides, referring to the VA and its clients, but they are working through it.
Torok said his own father would be against using Telehealth. However, he said, the program would work when the client only needs a 10-minute appointment to get a prescription renewed. He said Telehealth would save Cape May County veterans the trouble of traveling to Philadelphia or Wilmington, Del., to see a VA doctor.
Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, who is also the commander of VFW Post 386 in Cape May, attended the program along with Assemblyman Bruce Land. Both are military veterans. Andrzejczak said he personally knows of a veteran in his 90s for whom traveling is painful.
Fred Trasatti Jr. said he drives a van for Disabled American Veterans, which takes veterans to Philadelphia and Wilmington, and veterans in their 80s and 90s have to spend five or six hours riding in a van each time they go to the VA. Trasatti said the DAV has transported more than 1,200 veterans to VA medical facilities over the last two years but most veterans use their own insurance because they can’t stand the drive to Wilmington or Philadelphia.
Torok said those are the types of veterans who would be served by Telehealth.
Torok said the idea for Telehealth came from a veteran who had a rash, but did not want to travel to the VA clinic. Torok said while the veteran’s wife was on the phone, the veteran shouted, “Can’t we just send them a picture?”
Torok said that is exactly what happened, and the doctor was able to identify the rash.
Griffies and other veterans in attendance advocated creating a program by which veterans could visit any doctor’s office or hospital and get treatment and have it covered by the VA.
“The only thing that will change anything is to give the vet a card and let him go to the doctor,” Griffies said.
Another veteran in attendance said there is a problem with veterans not being registered with the VA until they have been out of the military for many years. He suggested the Department of Defense should transfer military records to the Veterans Administration at the time the individual is separated from the military. Carlos Robinson from the Veterans Experience Team said the VA is working on a seamless transition for military records to the VA.
Veterans also complained that the different VA facilities don’t communicate with each other, and if a veteran is treated in Wilmington, for example, and has to go to Philadelphia, it’s like starting over.
Torok said there has been a change of attitude in the VA in terms of providing services to veterans.
“It’s the veterans’ needs that drive decisions on where resources go, and that has never happened before,” Torok said.
The panel also included Saino Henres, a representative of the Southern My VA Community, Nichole Stokes from the VA’s Family Caregiver Support program, and David Mullen, a counselor from the Ventnor Veterans Center.
Stokes said her area involves shifting direction from the veteran to those who care for veterans. She said caregivers need support because they often neglect their own needs while caring for their veteran family member. Often, she said, the caregivers have trouble navigating the VA system, and helping with that is one of the functions of her office.
Robinson said the Veterans Experience office was newly formed, and its function is to monitor the experiences of veterans with any of the VA’s facilities. He said VISN4 has been directed by the director of the VA to go out into the community.
“We are very aware of the situation in South Jersey,” Robinson said.
Mullen said one of his main functions is to reach out to veterans organizations and help connect veterans with services. He said the Ventnor Veterans Center offers evening hours several times per week to accommodate veterans, as well as some weekend hours. He said they offer psychological counseling to combat and non-combat veterans, and offer a broad range of therapy.
Mullen said many college campuses are now offering services geared toward veterans, including Stockton University and Atlantic Cape Community College, which have created veteran lounges as a place where vets can relax, get information, or even have a Telehealth conference. He said Atlantic Cape has even formed a Veterans Advisory Board.
“Anything we want to do for veterans they (Atlantic Cape) are right on board,” said Jacqui Hinker, who organized the symposium.
Hinker is the spouse of a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. She is a member of the VFW Post 386 Auxiliary, and the daughter of a Korean War veteran. She is also a peer facilitator for Hearts of Valor, a program founder through Operation Homefront to support caregivers. She said it is part of the caregiver program with the VA.
“There was a lot of good information given here, and it needs to be spread throughout Cape May County,” she said.
Andrzejczak said he was looking forward to seeing more services available to veterans in Cape May County, and spreading the word through forums such as the one in Cape May County. He referred to the dissatisfaction veterans expressed regarding VA services, and said future boards should be prepared to be bombarded with questions and complaints from veterans.