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Isakson pledges VA clinic for here
Panel tackles veterans' issues
9 Isakson - Penland Mayor
Garlon Penland, Commander of Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 46, left, chats with Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas following the hearing. - photo by Photo by Denise Etheridge
JESUP — U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Wednesday the Veteran’s Administration has an obligation to Hinesville and the surrounding area to “help make the community whole.”
That help should not only provide a VA outpatient clinic for the area’s estimated 15,425 disabled veterans, but also by housing such a clinic in space that local developers built in preparation for a 5th Brigade that was promised, but did not come.
“It would be a win-win for the city of Hinesville and for the VA,” Isakson said.
The senator, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, hosted a field hearing Wednesday here at Altamaha Technical College.
The hearing, Isakson said, was to examine the process by which VA determines the placement of clinics, and to hear from veterans themselves how they view the care they receive and to discuss any concerns they have regarding medical care from the VA.
“The nature of (veterans) care is changing dramatically from in-patient care to out-patient care,” he said.
The veterans’ affairs committee has proposed establishing community-based outpatient clinics in Hinesville and Brunswick.
“These clinics (would) provide primary care and basic mental health services,” Isakson said in his opening remarks. “Providing primary care in the communities both helps veterans by making their health care more convenient, and by alleviating the strain on the VA hospitals.”
The Republican lawmaker said the old strategy short changed veterans living in rural communities because of the distance to the nearest VA medical centers.
“What should have been routine trips to the doctor turned into day-long ordeals, often made worse by the challenges facing veterans with disabilities,” he said.
Isakson said there have been delays in opening the proposed clinics.
“Hinesville’s clinic has been pushed back for good reason, as VA decided to double the size of the initial proposal in order to provide mental health services tailored specifically to the large population of recent veterans serving in the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart,” he said.
Isakson said the initial dimensions of the proposed Hinesville clinic were set at 10,000-square feet.
“It’s my understanding that the Hinesville clinic would need to be expanded to 25,000-square feet,” he said.
Isakson stressed that the projected dates for opening the two proposed clinics are conservative estimates.
“We hope to open the clinic in Brunswick in 2010 and the one in Hinesville in 2011,” he said.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas attended the hearing, and was recognized by Isakson who asked him to stand.
Thomas said he would like to see the VA clinic in the city of Hinesville, preferably downtown.
“We have a proposal to use temporary or modular buildings until a (permanent) clinic is built,” Thomas said. “These veterans live in our town, so we’ve got to take care of them.”
Cort Nordeoff, the Southeast Georgia district commander for Disabled American Veterans, agreed, adding that he would not want the proposed clinic on Fort Stewart.
“A lot of our veterans don’t have ID cards and can’t get on post,” Nordeoff said. “Not all of them are retirees.”
Nordeoff said many of the disabled veterans his organization assists live in or near Hinesville. He told Isakson, during the hearing, that a Hinesville clinic also would help alleviate the Savannah clinic’s patient load, which is estimated at serving about 25,800 disabled veterans in Chatham County alone. The proposed Hinesville clinic would likely serve about 15,000 veterans from the area, Nordeoff said. Southeast Georgia has about 54,526 disabled veterans, he added.
The committee first heard testimony from Joseph Williams, acting deputy under secretary for health for operations and management, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans’ Affairs; Lawrence Biro, network director, VA Southeast Network, Division 7; and Rebecca Wiley, director of the Charlie Norwood (Augusta) VA Medical Center.
“VA determines its health care and benefits infrastructure requirements through a strategic planning process that is closely linked to the department’s mission and goals,” Williams testified. “VA is committed to further improving access to health care for veterans, including veterans in rural areas, by comprehensively evaluating demographics in a given market, determining the clinical need for services in the area and then aligning capital investment strategies to meet the health care needs of veterans in the area. VA carefully analyzes utilization trends, veteran population data, and enrolled users to ensure that the appropriate mix of services is available to meet the needs of local veterans.”
The second panel to offer testimony included Tom Cook, assistant commissioner, field operations and claims, Georgia Department of Veterans Service; Albert Spears, state adjutant/quartermaster, Department of Georgia, Veterans of Foreign Wars; and Nordeoff.
These panelists said veterans often have to travel to Savannah or Kingsland for medical appointments because these clinics are the only VA outpatient clinics in Southeast Georgia.
Nordeoff testified that 3.2 million, or 41 percent, of veterans enrolled for VA health care across the U.S. are classified by VA as rural or highly rural.
“Also, 44 percent of current active duty military service members, who will be tomorrow’s veterans, list rural communities as their homes of record,” he said. “VA estimates that 773,000 veterans live in Georgia, of which almost 23,000 are proud members of the DAV. In Georgia, VA meets veterans’ health care needs with major medical centers in Atlanta, Augusta and Dublin. VA operates 14 community-based outpatient clinics.”
Nordeoff said these clinics are in Albany, Athens, Columbus, Decatur, East Point, Lawrenceville, Macon, Oakwood, Perry, Rome, Savannah, Smyrna, Stockbridge and Valdosta.
“As a general rule, DAV is very pleased with the VA commitment to rural health care access in the state of Georgia,” he said. “Nevertheless, research shows that when compared with their urban and suburban counterparts, veterans who live in rural settings in general have worse health-related quality-of-life scores, are poorer and have higher disease burdens, worse health outcomes and are less likely to have alternative health coverage. Such findings anticipate greater health care demands and thus greater health care costs from rural veteran populations.”
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