At a news conference last week to discuss his proposed budget, President Obama acknowledged that the efficiency of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could be improved. The president’s proposed budget outline provides for a modest initial increase in veterans funding. More veterans funding is certainly welcome, but the broader issue is the effectiveness of those dollars and of the department – especially when it comes to the ways health care is provided for rural veterans.
Over 250,000 veterans call Mississippi home, with many of them living in rural parts of the state. Nationally, there are over 2.8 million veterans enrolled in the VA’s health system that reside in a rural America. Too many of these veterans are left to choose between forgoing needed treatment and traveling a long distance – often times many hours – to receive proper care. This is something we can change by modernizing healthcare offered by the VA.
Rural Americans serve in our military at rates higher than their proportion of the population. While only accounting for 19 percent of the nation’s population, 44 percent of our recruits hail from rural communities. As soldiers return from service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other deployments around the world, the number of rural veterans will only continue to increase.
As a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, I am working in support of a number of programs to increase access to quality care for veterans, including the many rural veterans in states like Mississippi. For starters, a priority that must be stressed is maintaining the standard of care for all service members as they transition from active duty to the VA. I have urged the leadership at the VA to establish an interoperable electronic medical records system between the VA and the Defense Department to help achieve this.
Another way we can increase care for rural veterans is to continue expanding the number of community based outpatient clinics (CBOC) in rural areas. These clinics reduce travel for veterans who live far from a VA health facility and make it easier for veterans to receive primary care and basic mental health services. In recent years the VA has added over 100 new CBOCs and has plans to open 31 more within the next two years. One of those clinics will be in Pike County, bringing Mississippi’s total number to 10.
These community outpatient clinics provide a valuable service for veterans in rural areas, but because they are limited in number as well as in the services offered, they are not the sole solution. To close the healthcare gap more effectively for rural veterans, there needs to be stronger collaboration between the VA and existing rural health care facilities.
A pilot program was recently established to test this concept – one I have long advocated. The program requires the VA to contract with community health providers, such as local hospitals and rural health clinics, to provide care for veterans in certain rural parts of the country. This plan allows veterans to receive VA-backed care at facilities close to their homes – something important for rural veterans who would otherwise drive hours to reach a VA facility.
Another noteworthy plan being tested is the Rural Mobile Health Care Clinic program. This pilot project features recreational-type vehicles equipped to bring primary care and mental health services closer to veterans in a select number of predominantly rural counties across the country.
These types of concepts represent the innovative approaches we must continue to perfect and expand upon in order to bring better care to all of our veterans. And as your senator, these are the approaches I will continue to support so our nation is able to keep its promise to all of our veterans – regardless of where they live.