Choice Act lets veterans get comprehensive care at community health centers
While more Americans have health insurance coverage than ever before, there is still a shortage of venues to obtain the primary and preventive-care services everyone needs. This has certainly been true for many of our nation’s veterans who, as we salute
Now there is hope for change. Thanks to congressional action, veterans who have to travel more than 40 miles for care at a VA medical facility, or who are forced to wait longer than 30 days for an appointment, can receive care at a community health center. Congress passed the Veterans Choice Act last year in response to highly publicized reports of veterans experiencing intolerable wait times for care. To address the problem and help the VA meet increased demand for services, Congress authorized the VA to contract with local providers— enabling veterans to choose their care outside of the Veterans Health Administration system. No solution is perfect, but connecting veterans with health centers makes sense for many reasons, not the least of which is that the centers have been in the business of delivering quality, affordable healthcare for half a century.
Close to 400,000 veterans—and more than 24 million Americans overall—now depend on community health centers for primary and preventive care. About 1,300 health center organizations operate more than 9,000 sites nationwide. Strong public support and bipartisan backing over the years from the White House and congressional lawmakers has led to a growing national investment in health centers. Indeed, Congress last April voted on an overwhelming, bipartisan basis to extend funding that supports health center operations and services as demand for care continues to grow.
The investment has paid off. Serving a largely low-income and vulnerable population, health centers have achieved a strong track record in reducing mortality rates, developing programs for early screening and treatment of cancer, and managing chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. Yet it is their work in addressing the whole health of patients—including the environmental, social and behavioral factors so often linked to poor health outcomes—that makes them a fitting solution to the complex health issues facing veterans returning home. At last count, more than 400 health center organizations had signed up with the Veterans Choice program.
No provider can solve every problem, but health centers have never shied away from bold solutions or innovation. They look for answers beyond traditional medicine to prevent illness and confront the host of problems that cause it—stress, homelessness, drug abuse, joblessness and illiteracy, among others.
In addition to a range of primarycare services that can include dental, pediatric, geriatric, obstetric and vision care; pharmacy services; and mental health and substance-abuse counseling, health centers frequently offer services not commonly found in a doctor’s office. There are farmers’ markets and food pantries, community gardens, exercise programs and cooking classes. Some health centers also offer job training and legal services. The aim is to reach beyond healthcare delivery and improve the quality of life in communities. And it is working.
Many health centers serving large populations work in partnership with local VA hospitals and the broader healthcare community to ensure coordination of veterans’ healthcare needs. One center in southeast Oklahoma even offers the personal touch of welcoming veterans with specially designated parking spaces.
On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, veterans can get care close to home at a health center system instead of traveling across the 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
In the coastal area of Bandon, Ore., a health center has three veterans on staff who focus on outreach to their fellow veterans, including the homeless.
Health centers are also working hard to recruit veterans as part of their workforce. One initiative has resulted in the hiring of more than 4,000 veterans at health centers. We need the varied skill sets that veterans hold to fill positions from top to bottom, and staff who can effectively and compassionately relate to diverse populations.
Getting access to affordable care should not be a challenge for anyone in our country. Most important, veterans who have served and sacrificed for our nation should not come home and be forced to stand in line for their care.
Tom Van Coverden is president and CEO of the National Association of Community Health Centers.