Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Roger Johnson
NORTHAMPTON, Dec. 31, 2011 - Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is caring for America's newest generation of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan while serving all veterans from every conflict and every veteran who has defended our nation.
As the last convoy of American service members leaves Iraq and returns home, many will continue to serve. Others will follow in the footsteps of those before them and return to civilian life as perhaps students or as members of the workforce.
At the VA, we look forward to helping them become the next great generation of American veterans by supporting them during their transition from military service. The staff at our medical center in Leeds and our five outpatient clinics in central and western Massachusetts takes its mission seriously in doing all we can to help the more than 120,00 veterans who reside in our region.
Over the past year, nearly 700 VA staff members have undertaken initiatives to better serve veterans and meet their needs. We are working hard to posture your VA for the future we can already see.
After the American Civil War and World War I, the federal government began building large soldiers' homes in major cities, which became the first veterans' hospitals, including the hospital that now sits atop Bear Hill in Leeds. The VA relied upon these hospitals.
But, about a decade ago, the VA started to push healthcare delivery out to the cities, towns and areas with the greatest population of veterans. Clinics like the ones we have in Pittsfield, Greenfield, Springfield and now Fitchburg and Worcester are intended to provide about 90 percent of veterans' day-to-day needs.
In the fall of 2011, we integrated clinics in Worcester and Fitchburg with others in the western four counties to make it more convenient for veterans to access care in our region. Over time, we hope to expand specialty care and build greater research opportunities that will allow more veterans to access care near their homes instead of traveling into Boston or other VA facilities.
We're also developing and emphasizing programs that increase the overall well-being of veterans. Well-being, we know, is more the product of good living rather than a physician's skills. It is diet, exercise, weight control, regular check-ups and the right attitude to live healthier. If we do it right, our programs will increase patient well-being and the episodes of acute care will be reduced.
In the area of information technology, we're investing more in the development of virtual records that will allow veterans to stay connected to VA healthcare electronically, safely and privately. In 2011, the VA launched a program to provide a direct benefit to designated, approved family caregivers of eligible post-9/11 veterans, which includes monthly stipends and health insurance.
Life-saving remote monitoring is ongoing today for hundreds of chronically ill veterans in our region. It saves them the time, expense, and stress of having to drive or be driven to our medical center or to a clinic. To help in this growing area, we are hiring and training more clinical technicians.
We also started a telephone call center with a goal of "first call resolution" to meet expectations the first time a veteran phones in and to better connect veterans with medical specialists.
Our Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Program continues to strive to end veteran homelessness. The VA is providing numerous grants to assist in housing veterans and to provide treatment and programs to help them, as well as those at risk of becoming homeless. Within the next few years, we look forward to Soldier On beginning the development of a permanent supportive housing complex for 60 veterans on our Leeds campus.
Still, we face challenges. One lies in reaching more veterans than ever before to receive the medical coverage they have earned. Today, only a third of veterans in central and western Massachusetts receive VA health care. Many have private coverage through their employers. But I worry every day about the thousands of veterans who are eligible for care but have not enrolled with us. These are veterans who could be left in the lurch if they develop a medical condition or are injured in an auto accident.
From health care to homelessness, the VA is here for veterans who have earned the care and benefits our nation provides. We see the sacrifice of our veterans every day. Some are physically disabled; others struggle with mental illness born from combat; many have visible wounds and battle scars you can't see. We need the public's help to ensure they get the help they need.
Today, as Americans mark the end of military operations in Iraq, we at the VA look forward to saying "welcome home" to our Iraq veterans, and we commit ourselves to honoring and serving all veterans from all wars and conflicts.
Roger Johnson is director of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, which operates in Leeds and at clinics in Fitchburg, Greenfield, Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester.