GLENWOOD SPRINGS — In just three years, the Veterans Affairs Telehealth Outreach Clinic here has attracted enough patients to qualify for full clinic status, and recent VA rule changes mean substantially more area veterans may qualify for VA health care, says Tom Ziemann, a VA polytrauma case manager who works out of Grand Junction.
About 1,200 U.S. military veterans in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties are patients at the clinic, but many more may not be aware they are now eligible for health benefits regardless of income.
In fact, said Ziemann, all veterans who were “boots on the ground” in Vietnam or Gulf War I (from 1990-1998) now qualify for VA health benefits. In addition, contrary to some assertions, VA health care is unaffected by the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
“They can save all that money” merely by signing up, he said of eligible veterans.
Among the reasons for the expanded eligibility are recognition that the government was slow to acknowledge health issues related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam and a desire to avoid a similar situation with Gulf War Syndrome.
In addition, the VA system is gaining capacity as veterans from the World War II era are no longer consuming VA services.
In the case of Vietnam veterans, while official recognition of the adverse health effects of Agent Orange was slow to develop, now 13 separate disease diagnoses automatically qualify Vietnam veterans as being affected by Agent Orange — no questions asked.
“We don’t question why you got it or how you got it,” Ziemann said.
The 13 qualifying illnesses are listed on the VA website — www.va.gov — as is other information about VA benefits.
Gulf War Syndrome is not as clearly defined and includes various neuromuscular and gastrointestinal afflictions. Trying to keep it in check is the chief reason veterans who were in theater during that war between 1990 and 1998 are now covered by VA health benefits regardless of income level.
“We want to ensure the American taxpayer we’re not going to make the same mistakes we made in Vietnam [with Agent Orange],” Ziemann said.
Easy to apply
Honorably discharged veterans can apply for VA health and other benefits by filling out a short form and providing a copy of their DD214, which is their discharge form. The form is available at www.archives.gov for veterans who do not have one.
“They need that DD214,” Ziemann said. “That’s their ticket. Without it, we turn them away.”
Health benefit applications and other forms are also available at the Glenwood Springs clinic, said Jenell Hilderbrand, a registered nurse there.
As simple as it may be to apply for benefits, Ziemann said he recognizes there is nothing easy about it for some veterans.
“It triggers their PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]” just to come into a VA clinic, he said.
Ironically, that is one of the conditions the VA can treat, and he encourages veterans to overcome their reluctance and discover how the agency might be able to help them.
Many veterans also may qualify for up to $2,600 per month in service-connected disability compensation as well, he pointed out, yet some misconstrue its intention or feel like they don’t deserve it. In reality, it covers everything from service-related partial hearing loss, which Ziemann said is common, to more serious injuries.
“Compensation is a much-misunderstood thing,” he said. It’s really as simple as, “because of your service, these things happened ... we’re going to compensate you for that,” he explained.
Applying for compensation is more complicated than applying for VA health care, he said, and right now there is a backlog of applications, but it is still a relatively straightforward process that he urges injured veterans to explore.
‘Skype on steroids’
Statistically, the Glenwood Springs clinic has a larger pool of potential patients. According to the U.S. Census, as of 2010 there were nearly 6,300 veterans in the three counties the clinic serves. More than half of them live in Garfield County.
Prior to the opening of the teleclinic, local veterans had to travel to Grand Junction, while now many health care “visits” can be made via the sophisticated teleconferencing equipment at the clinic.
The initial consultation is still performed by a doctor in Grand Junction, but after that, many situations can be handled by the nursing team at the clinic and via teleconference with doctors in Grand Junction and specialists in other locations.
“It’s like Skype on steroids,” Ziemann said of the teleconferencing equipment, which includes not only high-definition cameras and large flat screen TVs, but also various medical monitoring devices that transmit vital signs and other data.
“It’s as close to being there as humanly possible,” he said.
If a full scale VA clinic were approved for Glenwood Springs, it would include onsite doctors, and perhaps mental health services, and would be capable of servicing more patients.
“A lot of good things can happen if we get this clinic,” he said.
That could take a while, though. First the agency will have to prepare a formal request, and then Congress ultimately would have to approve it, Ziemann said.