Palisade, Colorado VA administrators from Grand Junction and the Denver Regional Office organized a Town Hall Meeting to explain their plans for improving service delivery and take questions from the 60 or so area veterans who assembled in the main meeting hall of American Legion Post 50. VISN 19 Network Director, Ralph Gigliotti, set the tone by highlighting mistakes from the previous administration and underscoring the new administration's concern for “how to structure and deliver care into the future”. As an example, Mr. Gigliotti called attention to the VA’s Veterans Choice Program, noting the short timeline granted for implementation and the subsequent challenges administrators faced in effectively managing the needs of stakeholders who participated in and benefited from this effort to expand the private-sector healthcare options for veterans with service-related disabilities. Ultimately, Congress controls the fate of this program, which is due to sunset later this year, not the VA. This fact alone will likely trigger a deep sense of skepticism even among the most passive observers of our political system. However, Mr. Gigliotti assured the audience that a long-term fix is in the works. Although he did not elaborate, recent reports suggest these changes will include the implementation of a new health risk assessment program performed by VA clinicians, which will replace the current requirement that a veteran must have waited at least 30 days or has to travel more than 40 miles for VA care to qualify for treatment from a local, non-VA doctor. Among other things, one goal of this change is a dramatic reduction in the patient backlog resulting from more than 45,000 provider vacancies within the VA system.
To build on this optimistic tone, the new Director for the Grand Junction VA, Michael Kilmer, announced his overarching concern with the rate of veteran suicides and pledged to address this problem by working to increase the percentage of area veterans who utilize VA services. As if to further emphasize his commitment to this cause, Mr. Kilmer referenced a county map of his jurisdiction containing the veteran population for each county as well as the absorption rate, or percentage of veterans in these counties who utilize VA services. Some of the statistics were indeed quite shocking. In Pitkin and Eagle Counties, the absorption rates are just 8 and 12 percent respectively. Mr. Kilmer’s strategy for addressing this problem is twofold. First, he plans to increase the number of VA certified primary care doctors in rural areas. Second, he hopes to deploy a mobile clinic to underserved areas on a regular basis. While the Grand Junction VA has a mobile clinic at its disposal, Mr. Kilmer acknowledged he does not currently have the resources to send it into the field. Given the magnitude of the national shortage of VA providers, it is anyone’s guess when will see this unit in our local communities - if ever.
Wrapping up the meeting were Denver Regional Director, Chris Holly, and Cemetery Administrator for the Grand Junction VA, Joanna Iglesias. Mr. Holley discussed additional proposals for administrative changes in service provision, including decision-ready claims processes, expedited appeals, and developments in the WARTAC Program. The decision-ready claim program aims to expedite the claims process by shifting certain decision-making responsibilities to local VSOs. In addition, Mr. Holly noted recent changes in the appeals process that dramatically improved the wait time and administrative burden, while underscoring plans for additional changes in the future. Also of note is the VA’s commitment to the WARTAC Program, which offers VA training for service members as they approach their separation date. According to Mr. Holly, this program helped him dramatically increase the size of the veteran staff in the Denver Region. In conclusion, Joanna Iglesias reminded veterans to take advantage of their burial benefits by preregistering with the Cemetery Service. She also noted a new program that offers quarterly military services for veterans interred at the Grand Junction VA cemetery.