Health care program for veterans to change this year

Veterans gather to share information

Jim Horton, director of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, chats with Abraham “Snake” Ah Hee before Thursday’s meeting at the Kahoohanohano Armory Maui in Kihei. Punchbowl cemetery on Oahu has inurnment eligibility past 2035. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KIHEI — Hawaii Veterans Affairs officials announced Thursday that the VA will replace its current health system with a new, consolidated program later this year, aimed at increasing doctor choice and making it easier to use and navigate.

The current Veterans Choice Program, which utilizes contractor TriWest in the Pacific area, will be ending in June, said Jennifer Gutowski, director of the VA Pacific Island Health Care System. In its place will be the Veterans Community Care Program.

Other details, such as which contractors will be used or how the transition will unfold, are not clear at this time, said Gutowski, who leads the Oahu-based VA Pacific, which provides health care services to veterans in Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and throughout the Pacific islands.

News of the upcoming health care transition drew concern from veterans familiar with TriWest and Veterans Choice at a Maui town hall Thursday evening.

“That (transition) could be scary,” said Vietnam veteran Jim Green of Kula, adding that the move could get drawn out. “Health is the main concern with the VA. It’s one of our biggest benefits.”

VA Pacific Islands Health Care System Director Jennifer Gutowski speaks during Thursday evening’s meeting at the Kahoohanohano Armory at a gathering of Maui veterans. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Denise DeVor, a 23-year Army veteran from Kihei, said she’s worried about losing the current health care plan.

“The worst part was hearing about the Choice program,” DeVor said. “But I’m glad to see how the VA is reaching out to contact people, young and old, more than ever before.”

The changes are part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Mission Act of 2018, which fundamentally transforms elements of the VA’s health care system and will consolidate existing systems into the new Veterans Community Care Program. It appropriates $5.2 billion in mandatory funding for the Veterans Choice program to continue to provide care to veterans until the new program is operational, the department said.

“VA is working hard to ensure a seamless transition for veterans and community providers,” the department website said.

Changes to the current health care system, new ways of combating high suicide rates for veterans and memorial benefits were among topics discussed during the 1¢-hour meeting at the Kahoohanohano Armory Maui in Kihei. About three dozen veterans, family members and people who work with veterans attended, along with about a dozen VA officials from Maui and Oahu. The gathering is the largest annual informational meeting for local veterans.

Tiara Peterkin talks about recognizing early suicide triggers and the importance of reaching out for help before they add up to crisis levels. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The VA continues to prioritize suicide prevention efforts, citing $12.2 million spent on suicide prevention outreach nationally last fiscal year. The budget for the current fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30, is approximately $47.5 million, and $20 million will be spent on outreach, according to the department.

An average of 20 veterans die from suicide each day, the department said. In Hawaii, 11 veteran suicides occurred in 2016, the most recent year for available data; there were 6,079 veteran suicides nationally.

“Physical disability is the number one risk for suicide,” said Tiara Peterkin, VA Pacific suicide prevention coordinator. Peterkin discussed the stress that aging, chronic pain and insomnia can have but said, “there is a lot we can do to protect against suicide.”

Peterkin emphasized that being proactive is key: Suicide prevention is more than intervention at the point of crisis, it’s about creating cultures where veterans and family members thrive.

“People need a sense of belonging, where they don’t feel like a burden,” she said.

Peterkin, along with VA Pacific chaplain Mike McGruder, said veterans who are struggling with what may seem like small stress issues should call the Veterans Crisis Line or contact the chaplain. They should call even if they are worried about health care.

“We don’t attempt to cure the head without attempting to cure the heart,” said McGruder.

“We don’t just discuss the spiritual side,” she added. “Chaplains ease the way in. You don’t need to make an appointment to meet the chaplain. You don’t need a meeting to see the chaplain. Just give me a call.”

Other health care updates include the addition of 200 positions with VA Pacific, including the hiring of the first pulmonologist, Gutowski said. The VA is looking for lab techs and nurses on Maui, she added.

“They are hiring 200 employees, that’s amazing,” said Vietnam veteran Bo Mahoe of Wailuku. “Plus a pulmonology specialist? That’s great.”

Local veterans were pleased that officials made the trip to the meeting and that they were able to ask questions and get resources directly from VA leadership.

“It was good; I’m glad I came,” DeVor said. “It’s neat that all these people from higher up came.”

Other updates:

• Inurnment eligibility will continue for National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, or Punchbowl, past 2035, said Jim Horton, National Cemetery Administration director.

• VA launched a new redesigned VA.gov that helps with scheduling an appointment, filing a claim and applying for VA health care.

• The new electronic health record system modernizes the appointment system, automates disability and payment claims and connects VA to the Department of Defense, private health care providers and private pharmacies.

• For the first time, a state veterans summit will be held June 21-22 at the Hawaii Convention Center.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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HELP FOR VETERANS

• Veterans Crisis Line: (800) 273-8255, press 1

• VA Pacific Islands Health Care System: (800) 214-1306 (toll free), www.hawaii.va.gov/, www.facebook.com/VAPacificIslands/

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