(Co-written with Anil Saldanha)
The recent news of an Arizona veteran healthcare facility exposing workers to dangerous conditions outlines the ongoing urgency of attending to the specific healthcare needs of those who have served their country.
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced it will pause the Electronic Health Records Modernization Program, adding more challenges to access and delivery of healthcare to veterans.
Healthcare providers need to recognize the unique healthcare needs of military veterans and take steps to improve their access to necessary healthcare services. Even as systems are upgraded and healthcare facilities meet the challenges of aging infrastructures, it is critical to meet veterans’ needs.
According to a report by Pew Research Center, many veterans face challenges in readjusting to civilian life, including physical and mental health issues, difficulty finding employment, and social isolation. In addition, veterans may be unaware of the programs and benefits available to them, which can lead to a lack of access to necessary healthcare services.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 there were 18.4 million veterans in the U.S.. The Veterans Health Administration, with 1,298 healthcare facilities, provides care to about 9 million veterans each year.
A report by the Department of Veterans Affairs from 2016 shows about 62% of veterans are utilizing their VA healthcare. This indicates that many veterans are not using their benefit entitlements, which can lead to a lack of access to necessary healthcare services.
As a Marine Corps veteran and military spouse, I understand the unique healthcare needs of the nation’s veterans, especially when they transition back to civilian life. My husband, also a Marine Corps veteran who deployed to Iraq, was exposed to burn pits resulting in his diagnosis of testicular cancer. It took him three hospitals and six doctors to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
During his treatment journey, we discovered that some healthcare facilities do screen for military status, but this is mainly aimed at men.
As a female Marine setting up at a civilian primary care provider at the same time as my husband, I was not asked if I had served in the military. This highlights the need for healthcare providers to be aware of and address the unique healthcare needs of female veterans as well.
Change is coming for veterans’ healthcare
The recently approved PACT Act allows veterans to access a wider range of healthcare conditions that were previously denied to them. By identifying veterans and connecting them with the appropriate benefits and resources, healthcare providers can help ensure that veterans receive the care they need.
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology offers technology updates from the Department of Veterans Affairs to serve the veterans in the community, including suicide prevention, care for toxic exposure, and social determinants of health.
The mental and physical health of veterans is critical to their overall well-being, and many organizations and programs exist to support them.
The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit organization that offers a variety of services and programs to help veterans who have suffered physical or mental injuries as a result of their service.
The Road Home Program is another initiative that provides mental health and wellness services to veterans, including counseling, therapy, and support groups. Similarly, Hope for the Warriors is a nonprofit organization that provides support and resources to help veterans and their families navigate the challenges of military life and transition to civilian life.
To ensure that veterans receive the care and support they need, healthcare providers can screen for military status and social determinants of health among their patients. These factors are the conditions—including where people are born, grow, live, work, and age—that affect their health outcomes.
Poverty, lack of access to healthy food, and social isolation are all health determinants that can impact a veteran’s physical and mental health. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, five domains for screening are: housing instability, food insecurity, transportation problems, utility help needs, and interpersonal safety.
Health systems have an opportunity to screen veterans for these factors, primarily in the emergency department, for initiating closed-loop referrals with Veterans Affairs and other community-based organizations.
The technology updates from the VA connected to the Open Application Programming Interface Pledge allow health systems to determine the care and benefits the veterans have in addressing social determinants of health needs.
By identifying and addressing these needs, healthcare providers can better understand the unique needs and challenges faced by veterans and provide appropriate care and support.
By screening for military status, healthcare providers can ensure that veterans receive specialized care that takes into account their military service, including any injuries or trauma they may have experienced.
By leveraging programs and resources available to support veterans and by screening for military status and social factors, healthcare providers can improve the health and well-being of our nation’s veterans.
By doing so, they honor the sacrifices made by veterans and ensure that they receive the care and support they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.