Although not perfect, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Administration has a lot of fans in the Verde Valley.
On Thursday, Oct. 12, the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System held a town hall meeting for veterans at the Cottonwood Public Library.
Veterans from across the region talked about the care available to locals. Criticism of the system’s lag time — the wait for primary care, in particular, as well as the delay in processing correct charges after receiving care — was a common theme but largely restricted to health centers outside of the Cottonwood VA outpatient clinic or the larger federal system.
“Our commitment is always to transparency,” said Barbara Oemcke, Northern Arizona VA Health Care System’s medical center director. She encouraged veterans to keep dialogue open with their local, state and federal benefits representative or care providers, ensuring that any lack is noticed and mistakes are not repeated.
“If you have things that aren’t right and don’t speak up, that builds frustration, so I appreciate you speaking up. Always bring those questions up,” said Kerri Wilhoite, Northern Arizona VA Health Care System associate director for Patient Care Services and nurse executive, adding that health care is a complicated issue compounded by access in rural areas like the Verde Valley.
Often, the VA is forced to send patients outside the network to the Phoenix area, complicating the coordination of services and confusing billing.
“[Sometimes] something gets messed up and falls through the crack,” Wilhoite said. “We’re happy to bring up those issues [and] really try to make the best sense of what’s going on and if there’s a problem not repeat it.”
The area of universal consensus among the veterans and providers was the commitment of local doctors and medical staff. According to Oemcke, a significant proportion of doctors and staff are veterans themselves, while “those staff who are not veterans are really committed to the VA because they believe in the VA’s mission.”
One such staff member, Northern Arizona VA Health Care System Chief of Staff Dr. Malcolm Piatt, comes from a family with history in the military: His father and 10 of his 11 uncles served in World War II. Piatt himself missed the draft for the Vietnam War by only a few years.
According to Piatt, his family’s emphasis on service to one’s country had a major impact on his development, inspiring him to find his own path to assisting veterans. “It’s a privilege and an honor to serve vets,” Piatt said. “I always knew I owed a rather large debt.”
Piatt said while the VA health system is not perfect, access to medical records is increasingly easy for care providers, ensuring that if a veteran seeks care while on vacation, Piatt is able to access the relevant details in Northern Arizona, reducing the lag time significantly. Piatt urged veterans to follow up when anything goes awry. Guaranteeing that veterans have access and remaining confident in the support system is key.
Technology has made veterans’ health care more efficient, Wilhoite said, especially for those who live far from hospitals and clinics. Not only does the VA Health Administration maintain a variety of resource websites, myhealthevet.va.gov helps veterans refill prescriptions, manage appointments, access health care records and contact VA staff.
Additionally, it offers consultation about maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In addition, the Veterans Appointment Request app, available for smartphones, makes appointments easier by arranging and organizing visits.
“If you’re in doubt, the telephone care is great,” Wilhoite said, endorsing teleheath.va.gov as a means to access healthcare without the long trips, extended waits and other inconveniences of inperson care.
Of course, remote access is not preferable to everyone: For those Verde Valley veterans with significant hurdles to accessing care, the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System offers transport to and from Prescott and the Phoenix area for appointments.
According to Northern Arizona VA Health Care System Voluntary Service Specialist Paul Flack, the van trips are free and available to all veterans in need of the service. Moreover, members of the community can help.
“We have an urgent need for volunteer drivers for Disabled American Veterans,” Flack said, adding that becoming a driver is simple, requiring a driver’s license and a background check.
To contact VA Voluntary Services, call (928) 776-6013. For immediate mental health care and suicide prevention and consultation, call the VA Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255. The Cottonwood VA Outpatient Clinic is at 501 S. Willard St. in Cottonwood. Call 649-1532.