By Jill Penley
One in four veterans live in rural areas, and many are aged and in declining health making it more difficult to endure the hour drive to the nearest Veterans Health Administration facility.
For the past decade, at least two local veteran advocates and two legislators have labored tirelessly to increase healthcare access to our rural veterans, and particularly those in Johnson County.
“I have been working for almost 10 years to get a VA outpatient clinic in Mountain City,” said Robert Hensley of the National Legislative Commission of the American Legion, who has just returned from Washington where he attended the American Legion legislative caucus and spoke with house representatives and state senators and reiterated the need for healthcare accessibility for our veterans. “Sequestration has created a fuming problem,” said Hensley. “This is a problem that has been, and continues to be, hammered at the national level.”
Ralph Hutto, Johnson County’s Veterans Service Officer, has also done all he can to see a local VA clinic come to fruition. “At least one out of every ten people living in Johnson County right now has served in the United States Military in some capacity,” said Hutto.“ A new facility would serve not only Johnson County but could also benefit Ashe and Watauga Counties, Damascus, Virginia, and other nearby locations. The county has a significant number of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam that need local access to medical care.”
Both U.S. Rep. Phil Roe and TN Rep. Timothy Hill are aware of the situation and agree all veterans should have timely access to care.
“I am very supportive of getting a VA clinic in Johnson County,” said Rep. Hill, who sponsored legislation to authorize healthcare providers who are in the National Guard to provide volunteer clinic services in a Tennessee military armory for veterans in need. “This would provide healthcare services to veterans at a free clinic operated on the site of the armory.”
The bill was born from a town hall meeting in Mountain City several years back when local veteran Kenneth Harry met with Rep. Hill to pitch his idea to utilize local military personnel to provide limited primary health care to veterans.
And while the bill dubbed the “Kenneth Harry-Hill Tennessee Veterans Health Care Act of 2015” was passed by the state legislature, the Tennessee National Guard has yet to authorize military members to provide such care. While supporters agree, the bill, also referred to as the Mission Tennessee for Veterans Program, is not the final solution in solving veteran’s healthcare issues, it could help Johnson County veterans receive the local healthcare using resources already in place.
In the February oversight hearing to review the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs budget request for the Fiscal Year 2019, Rep. Phil Roe, who also chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, stressed the need for continued improvement for veteran healthcare. “One of the most important items on our agenda is ensuring veterans get access to timely care, regardless of whether that care is at a VA hospital or a facility in the community,” he said in the address. “As the Committee works to improve the quality and timeliness of care that veterans receive, my priority is ensuring benefits are never delayed, dismantled or reneged upon.”
Rep. Roe considers making it easier for veterans to access timely healthcare a top priority. “The VA has been partnering with community providers since the 1940’s to provide care outside the department,” he explained. “The committee has heard from veterans,
VA employees and industry leaders about the many obstacles that prevent VA from effectively partnering with community providers to augment in-house health care services.”
Rep. Phil Roe also believes veterans should have some say in where they receive their health care.
“VA cannot be everywhere and everything for every veteran,” he said. “And we know we have a lot of veterans in rural areas. As we continue to explore options to improve VA’s community care program, our focus will be to preserve VA’s role as the central coordinator of care for enrolled veterans while increasing their options for care and simultaneously investing in a stronger VA.”