PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. — When it comes to accessing health care, the issues facing veterans in South Jersey are well-known — long trips to clinics in Delaware or Pennsylvania for treatments, dialysis patients dealing with bus rides and carpools, local VA facilities closed on nights and weekends.
Now, after a year of hearings, the New Jersey Veterans’ Hospital Task Force has issued a number of recommendations to improve and expand health care access for veterans, including expanding a program that allows treatment at Shore Medical Center under the auspices of the Veterans Administration.
The 18-member task force was created by legislation in 2011 and and conducted several hearings with testimony from veterans and their family members.
While the VA has established clinics in Northfield, Cape May and Vineland, “they are only equipped to perform certain types of outpatient medical services, and often are overwhelmed by the large number of veterans seeking care,” the panel said in a statement. “As a result, veterans are often forced to travel long distances for their health care needs, including to East Orange, (Essex County), Wilmington, Del., or Philadelphia, Pa.”
Gene Green, an 87-year-old World War II veteran from Atlantic City, said he has stopped taking the vans to Wilmington because of the distance and inconvenience. Green welcomed the recommendations of the panel, which included state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblyman Matthew Milam, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, and state Sen. Christopher Connors and Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove, both R-Ocean, Atlantic, Burlington.
Among the recommendations are:
- Create a pilot program to give local veterans more access to local medical centers, including Cape May Regional Medical Center, the Virtua System, AtlantiCare, Shore Medical Center, the South Jersey Health Care System, and the Meridian Health Care System.
- Move Ocean County into the same VA region as Atlantic and Cape May counties, “so that veterans from that county, which has the greatest number of veterans in the State, would no longer need to travel to East Orange, Wilmington or Philadelphia for needed healthcare services.”
- Provide additional information to veterans about the health care services available, and focus greater attention on the needs of women veterans.
- Add more staffing to the Northfield Veterans Clinic, “which is an admirable facility but lacks sufficient staff to address adequately the needs of local veterans.”
Legislation urging the federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs to support the recommendations will be introduced in the next meeting of the state Senate.
“These men and women sacrificed for us,” Van Drew said. “They gave literally their heart, body and soul. And to put them on a bus or carpool them to Wilmington, Del., or Pennsylvania? That’s such a long trip. They drive for hours each way for a 15-minute appointment. We’ve needed to do something for a long time.”
Local veterans advocates are cautiously optimistic that the VA will work with the state and local groups to put their recommendations into action.
“This thing started at Shore,” said Atlantic County Veterans Services Officer Bob Frolow. “We sat down with (Shore President Emeritus) Rick Pitman to put together the program, and they were for it 100 percent. Now all the other hospitals are coming in saying they’d love to put it in. That’s great. We just need to get the VA to approve it.”
Shore has been certified by Health Net Federal Services/TRICARE, which provides health care services for active duty U.S. military personnel, retirees with 20 or more years of service and their dependents, since early June.
‘The volume has picked up a bit since the start,” Shore CFO Jim Foley said. “It took a while for word to get out. We’re seeing TRICARE numbers improve, particularly in outpatient areas and same-day surgeries.”
Foley added that Shore would never oppose the program’s expansion to other medical facilities.
“From an access perspective, it’s the right thing to do,” Foley said. “It’s always nice pick up all that volume yourself, but that’s not fair to patients. They should have access to any facility. .. It’s been a long time coming and there’s still work to be done.”
Since building a “billion dollar medical complex” in South Jersey would be difficult to achieve, Van Drew said, expanding the pilot program at Shore to other area hospitals was the best scenario.
“Area hospitals are very intrigued, very willing and very interested in providing veterans’ health care,” Van Drew said, calling the proposal of the expanded pilot program “the central core” of the recommendations. He added that Pitman, who also sat on the panel, noticed a bulletin that went out within the VA system that referred to the idea of “beginning to explore the notion of this type of relationship”.
“They didn’t make a commitment, but that was the first time we saw anything offering the idea that they would ‘explore,’” Van Drew said. “Hopefully, the public discussion had some effect.”
In addition, Van Drew called the VA’s claim that a new facility wasn’t needed because of the relatively small amount of veterans in South Jersey “pretty deceptive” because Ocean County was not included and placed in a different region, a decision that the panel recommends be changed.
“They’re saying someone from Mystic Island is not in South Jersey and has to go to East Orange (for treatment),” Van Drew said. “That’s deceptive and disfunctional in my opinion.”
Dan Danchak, a Vietnam veteran from Linwood, led a petition drive in favor of the Shore program along with advocate April Kauffman, who died in a homicide in May.
“Our goal is total veteran health care,” Danchak said. “To this day, the bus still runs picking up veterans and going to Wilmington. We believe most services should be done at Shore and other providers. Each veteran who qualifies would get a card, and they could use that card toward that service.”
In the end, said Danchak, “We want to commend the state for bringing this all to the table. ... But right now, action (is) the key word. We see the bullet points. But how is it going to get done?”