The Director of Alaska’s VA Healthcare System, Dr. Timothy Ballard, will be holding a tele-town hall for veterans on Thursday in order to discuss how the Veterans Administration has changed its operations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the status of the VA clinics in Homer and Kenai. Ballard also spoke with the Clarion last Friday to discuss these topics.
Kenai and Homer clinics
Last year, the VA clinic in Kenai was shut down due to issues with the structural integrity of the building. Since then, the VA services have been offered through Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, but Ballard said that the VA will soon be building a new clinic near the hospital.
“We’ll have a clinic there and we’ll be in close proximity to the hospital,” Ballard said. “So when veterans have the need for complicated health care issues that we might not be able to provide in our clinic, we’ll be able to refer them close by to the hospital to get those things done.”
Samuel Hudson, director of public affairs for the VA Healthcare system, said on Friday that he would be sending details about the new clinic to media outlets once that information is available.
The VA has also partnered with South Peninsula Hospital in Homer to provide services on the southern peninsula, but all of the VA staff based in Homer have been temporarily moved to the central peninsula, and all services are currently being provided telephonically. Ballard said that the VA is “actively pursuing” a lease for a permanent location in Homer and would be discussing more details during the tele-town hall.
“The biggest thing that’s happening is that we are trying to, as much as possible, restrict routine, face-to-face appointments,” Ballard said on Friday. “We don’t want our veterans to be coming into a health care facility when they don’t have to and potentially getting infected.”
Ballard said that the shift has been made primarily through VA staff, who review scheduled appointments each day and defer as many as possible to telephonic appointments. Urgent and emergent issues are still handled face to face, but the prioritization of telemedicine has led to a significant reduction in veterans visiting their local clinic, Ballard said. Alaska’s VA system is comprised of a collection of community outpatient clinics, so many of the services can be provided telephonically.
“So much of what we do is primary care, like with someone going to see their family doc, and mental health services,” Ballard said. “Much of that can be handled telephonically so we’ve seen that it’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
One challenge that the VA has faced in the transition to telemedicine, Ballard said, is that people are sometimes hesitant to adopt this new approach to health care.
“A lot of veterans have never faced this sort of interface before, so they’re usually resistant to talking on the phone or on a computer screen to a medical or mental health provider,” Ballard said. “When we walk them through the process the vast majority of them actually like it, but I think that’s been one of the impediments.”
Many services that the VA offers are provided through partnerships with other health care providers, and Ballard said that those services are continuing.
“Particularly things like home health care for our fragile veterans who may not have the ability to get around as easily,” Ballard. “We still have partnerships that were already there so that their needs are being addressed.”
Some services, particularly those that are not urgent but require face-to-face interaction, are being put on hold.
Ballard used hearing exams as an example of non-essential services that are not currently available.
“For a veteran who’s hard of hearing, we don’t want them to come in and do an audiogram in our audio booth when that’s not something that’s urgent or emergent,” Ballard said. “We can get them back as soon as things start cooling down.”
Elective procedures like vasectomies, Ballard said, are also being put off “until we get through this crisis.”
While the total number of veterans living on the Kenai Peninsula is unknown, 3,837 peninsula residents are enrolled with the VA, Ballard said. This includes 37 veterans who are struggling with homelessness and are currently receiving housing support services through the VA.
About 36,000 veterans across the state are enrolled in Alaska’s VA Health Care system, but Ballard said that he thinks the total population of Alaska veterans is between 75,000 and 90,000.
Ballard attributed the discrepancy between VA members and total veteran population to several possible factors: many may not know that they are eligible, while some may feel that they are better served with another provider.
Beyond the shift to telemedicine, Ballard said that his role as director of the VA’s Healthcare system is to ensure that adequate resources are available to meet veterans’ health care needs and to prepare his staff for the possibility of the VA needing to step in and provide extra help. Part of the VA’s “fourth mission,” Ballard said, is to support community needs. In the event of a surge of COVID-19 patients that require treatment, the state could put in a formal request to the VA to provide assistance to local communities through extra manpower and resources.
Ballard’s town hall will take place from 6-7 p.m. on Thursday, April 16. Call 907-313-3342 to participate.
A “one-stop shop” is available to answer any questions veterans and their families have by calling 907-257-5463 or emailing Alaskaquery@va.gov.