Many Valley veterans not using VA health care
It’s rarely good to be in last place. That’s where Lehigh County stands compared with all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in the rate of veterans enrolled in VA health care. That means veterans are missing out on free or low-cost care.
Maybe they don’t trust the government. Maybe they consider clinic locations inconvenient. Maybe they are too proud to accept what they consider a handout. Maybe they don’t know they’re eligible.
The Department of Veterans
Affairs recognizes it has work to do. So it’s trying something new locally to boost participation — an enrollment fair where veterans can apply and see a physician the same day.
The event will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Oct. 24 at the VA outpatient clinic at 3110 Hamilton Blvd. in Allentown.
Staff should be able to determine eligibility on the spot in most cases, said Bill Klaips, spokesman for the VA medical center in Wilkes-Barre, which runs the Allentown clinic and is holding the event.
“If you’re eligible, you’re going to get enrolled and you’re going to be seen the same night,” he said. “We’ll get you in the system, we’ll get you seen, which will get you flagged for follow-up appointments.”
Staff will be available to discuss disability benefits, which is a separate system not related to health care that is handled by another part of the VA. Veterans don’t have to receive disability benefits to receive VA health care. Confusion about that could be another reason that veterans don’t apply.
Census data show there are roughly 20,000 veterans in Lehigh County. The VA estimates that just shy of 46% of them are enrolled in health care. Vision and dental care are sometimes included.
Northampton County isn’t much better, with an estimated enrollment rate of about 51%. The state’s highest rate is 82% in Forest County. Lebanon, Blair, Clarion and Erie all top 70%.
Not all veterans are eligible, but most who have served on active duty, including with the Reserves and National Guard, are eligible for some level of care.
Eligibility criteria include dates and length of service, and discharge status. (More details are at the end of this column.)
Qualifying veterans are placed in one of eight “priority groups” that determine what, if anything, they pay, and what services they are eligible for.
Not everyone gets free care. Factors include service history, service-related disabilities, income and receipt of Medicaid or other benefits such as a VA pension.
Status can change over time, so veterans who were rejected previously may now qualify if they’ve had changes in health or income.
Veterans may be eligible even if they have other health coverage. Those who enroll may be able to see private physicians and specialists through the VA’s community care program, which recently expanded.
Those attending the enrollment fair in Allentown are encouraged to bring their DD214 and proof of income, though those records are not required. Future enrollment fairs are planned at other facilities that are part of the Wilkes-Barre medical center system.
New Allentown director
Veterans who seek care at the Allentown clinic may see some differences soon.
The clinic has a new chief medical officer, Dr. Aparna Tamaskar, whose goals include expanding services.
She joined the VA about three years ago, as a primary care physician at the clinic in Washington Township, Northampton County. She took over leadership of the Allentown clinic about three months ago after the previous chief medical officer, Dr. Jay Kloin, retired.
Tamaskar said she wants to make sure veterans “have faith in the system.”
She previously worked at Lehigh Valley Health Network, where she was director of primary care for internal and family medicine and chair of the physician council for LVHN-Pocono. She worked at the West End Healthcare Center in Brodheadsville.
Tamaskar took a pay cut to join the VA. She knew the work would be different and liked the challenge of caring for veterans.
“Here, VA takes care of every single aspect of their life,” she said.
Tamaskar will see patients two days a week and spend the rest of her time on administrative duties.
One of her goals is to increase the services that are offered in Allentown. She told me ultrasound services will be provided soon. A cardiologist will be joining the staff. So will a podiatrist — addressing a frequent complaint from Allentown area veterans, who now have to drive to the Wilkes-Barre medical center for podiatry care.
“My goal is to have everything under this roof,” Tamaskar said.
Veterans health care eligibility
Those who enlisted after Sept. 7, 1980, or who entered active duty after Oct. 16, 1981, must have served 24 continuous months, or for the full period they were called for active duty.
The minimum duty requirement may not apply to those discharged for hardship; early out; a disability incurred or aggravated while serving; and for those who served prior to Sept. 7, 1980.
Current and former members of the Reserves and National Guard must have been called to active duty by a federal order. Calls to active-duty status for training purposes only don’t qualify.
Veterans with dishonorable discharges are ineligible.
More information: va.gov/healthcare/eligibility.
Veterans: Why don’t you use VA health care?
If you’re a veteran who doesn’t use VA health care, I’d like to talk to you about why so I can explore that issue further. My contact information is below.
Dr. Aparna Tamaskar is the new chief medical officer at the Allentown veterans clinic.