Schrader Marks Veterans Day with Listening Tour for Healthcare, Other Services

Reforms have allowed those who have trouble accessing healthcare to seek care outside the Veterans Administration system, but Schrader still supports building capacity within the VA’s outpatient clinics, which have benefits such as lower prescription drug costs.

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader marked Veterans Day with a roundtable gathering at Chemeketa Community College, hearing directly from veterans groups and state and local service providers about the challenges they have had drawing down federal benefits.

Schrader said one of his top priorities is getting more funds dispensed to the Salem Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, so that it can serve more people. “This is our top priority,” he said, and added that Veterans Affairs Director David Shulkin would be judged based on his ability to improve service coordination with community-based outpatient clinics.

“It’s getting better,” Schrader said, and added that more funding had recently been approved by both Oregon and the federal government. “There’s new hope that’ll get out to a broader group of veterans.”

The campus was otherwise closed in observance of Veterans Day, which marks the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when the Allies and the Central Powers laid down their arms to end World War I. The holiday has evolved in the U.S. in the past 99 years to be the day when Americans commemorate military veterans who have served in defense of freedom.

Schrader said that even in a polarized Congress, veterans services remain an area where Republicans and Democrats wish to work together.

One program that state officials highlighted was the loss of the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, which was cut off in 2014 as a byproduct of the 2013 government shutdown. The program linked unemployed veterans over age 35 with technical training to prepare them for high-skilled trades. Many of these veterans no longer have other GI benefits, and the program helped 76,000 of them to gain skills in its four years of existence.

Schrader said he would make restoring funding for VRAP a priority.

Devin Whitaker, a veteran working with Lincoln County Veterans Services, has been part of a team trying to leverage resources from the Veterans Affairs and the dominant local medical provider, Samaritan Health Services, to expand primary care capacity for veterans in Newport.

The VA employs a physician who works out of a county building, but he’s capped out on the patients he can manage and 2,500 veterans in the county are unable to get free or low-cost care through him, forcing many to either see another provider without VA benefits or travel to Portland. “He’s already at double capacity,” Whitaker said.

Schrader said that the VA Choice program established in 2014 allows veterans to seek care outside the system and still get reimbursed if they can show a lack of access within the VA system. But Whitaker noted some healthcare costs, especially pharmaceutical drug prices, are hard to beat outside the VA.

Lincoln County veterans have launched a new nonprofit, the John Reed Veterans Foundation, to help with service coordination and allow for financial donations that the county itself might not be able to solicit.

Pete Bavaro, a service coordinator at the county veterans service office, said the county plans to open a veteran resource center in Newport that would link veterans with assistance to healthcare, transportation, housing, education and employment, with a “no-wrong door” policy, paralleling the mantra of resource providers for state assistance.

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.

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