Several local veterans had an opportunity to address U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leaders and voice their concerns over an array of issues during Wednesday's town hall meeting at the clinic in Chattanooga.
One concern that arose multiple times was over possible privatization of the VA system, partly brought on by comments made about the recently signed VA Mission Act and its authorization for access to community walk-in clinics.
That access would likely require contracting with those clinics, said Shannon Bales, nurse manager for community care.
The problem with using civilian care, said Tim Reed, former U.S. Army Staff Sgt., is they aren't familiar with dealing with ailments specific to veterans.
"How are they going to deal with veterans with agent orange or severe PTSD?" he asked. "What police officers and firemen get, let's magnify that by 100."
Civilian health care professionals see patients within 15 minutes, Reed noted, much shorter than VA physicians.
VA doctors take up to an hour for first-time patients and around 30 minutes every checkup, said Jennifer Vedral-Baron, director for the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.
"You're going to diagnose a person in 15 minutes? Come on," Reed said.
While it is true the Act authorizes access to private urgent care facilities, a complete privatization of the system is not in the works, according to an April 5 VA news release.
"There is no effort underway to privatize VA," according to the release.
It explains that demand for veterans' health care is outpacing department's ability to supply it wholly in-house. Because of this, the VA has had to share health care resources with the private sector through a community care program.
"There is just no other option and, once again, VA has offered this solution since the World War II era," the news release states.
While a lot of how the act will change daily operations is still unknown, Vedral-Baron said they are excited about it.
Among the changes, some include consolidation of seven VA community care programs into one streamlined program, removes the 30-day/40-mile barriers to veterans' care in the community and allows the VA to modernize assets and infrastructure for services, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The law hasn't been put into action yet, and it'll probably take a year before those changes kick in, Bales said.
But some modernization efforts are already under way.
Travis Kraft, acting director for the National Regional office of veterans affairs, talked about some of the department's upgrades, one of which is a complete digitization of its claims system.
"When you file a claim, it goes into an electronic system, and each day the claims are distributed out across the 56 regional offices," he said.
The system's algorithms are set up to ensure that veterans who have been waiting the longest get served first, Kraft said. Through the program, the department has brought its claims processing time down, averaging 99 days compared to 200 or more before the system was in place.
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