VA medical care now closer to home

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Dr. Andy Smith meets with local veteran Jim Hansel, who's enrolled in new VA programs provided through GMH and Cornerstone Family Practice. While still highly regulated by the VA, Smith says the programs are a step in the right direction. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

Vietnam veteran Jim Hansel of Guttenberg is one of many area vets taking advantage of new medical programs offered locally by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Guttenberg Municipal Hospital and Cornerstone Family Practice have recently been approved as providers of VA Choice and VA Blue Button, both programs designed to give veterans more convenient access to medical care.

Hansel, who usually receives care from VA providers in Dubuque and Iowa City, is now able to see family practitioners close to home. Late last year, the VA began mailing VA Choice cards to vets, prioritizing those who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA hospital or who have had to wait more than 30 days to see a VA physician.

GMH and Cornerstone have already begun seeing patients as part of the new program. “The reason I’m here is to provide local care,” said Dr. Andy Smith of Guttenberg Municipal Hospital and Cornerstone Family Practice. “I think this program is good because you hear about how care for veterans has been so disjointed and not very efficient. We’re happy to help our veterans out.” 

VA Choice cards provide a safety net for veterans who are on a VA waiting list because a health care appointment could not be provided to them within 30 days of their preferred date or the date medically determined by their physician; who live more than 40 miles from the closest VA medical facility; or who face unusual or excessive travel burdens. Due to their rural location, many veterans in The Press readership may qualify and can call 866-606-8198 to verify eligibility. 

Once eligibility is determined, VA Choice staff contact providers and schedule appointments for veterans. Then, a second program comes into play to help the providers communicate with one another.

Hansel tests his blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, and other basic health stats daily, and is able to record them online through a brand new project known as VA Blue Button. Not only can he track his own progress, his medical providers also have access to the information electronically. 

VA Blue Button is available to veterans who use My HealtheVet to enable them to create a single electronic file that can include all their personal health information. Veterans who are VA patients and have a Premium My HealtheVet account can use VA Blue Button to manage their health care as patients in VA medical facilities.

The Guttenberg veteran says he’s pleased with the way the programs have been working so far. He’s on a first name basis with VA staff, who regularly help him navigate the new system. 

“We are one of only two hospitals in the country enrolled in the VA Blue Button pilot program,” said Cornerstone’s office manager Linda Aulwes, explaining that before Blue Button became an option, hospital and clinic staff were faxing veterans’ medical records back and forth daily. 

Hansel flew in helicopters over Vietnam and was once shot down. He lived with undiagnosed PTSD for decades following his return to the United States. Now, he’s able to talk about his experiences and takes advantage of every opportunity to help other vets through fund-raising, patriot guard, and simply making phone calls to check in. Getting involved and familiar with new VA programs, like Choice and Blue Button, is one more way he’ll be able to guide his fellow veterans.

“We’re proud to do what we can for our veterans,” said Aulwes. For more information, please visit www.myhealth.va.gov (Blue Button) or www.va.gov/opa/choiceact (VA Choice).

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