Keeping veterans healthy

CALUMET – Local and regional Veterans Affairs officials and about two dozen of the veterans they serve gathered for a town hall meeting at the National Guard Readiness Center in Calumet Township Wednesday for a town hall meeting aimed at helping veterans understand the services available to them.

Administrators from the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain outlined some of the specialized services available there, while Jim Klutts of the Houghton/Keweenaw Department of Veterans Affairs office at the Houghton County Memorial Airport explained local services.

Veterans then had a chance to ask questions and offer their own experiences. Most of this discussion had to do with coordinating private health insurance and VA services.

Local veteran Bud Huuki, who spent 29 years on active duty in the Navy and served in Vietnam, said he found the meeting informative, but wished more veterans had taken advantage.

“I was disappointed in the attendance,” he said. “I figured we would have more Afghanistan and Iraq veterans here.”

Klutts said that while few younger vets made it to the meeting, about 25 percent of those he sees in his office are from recent conflicts, with the majority veterans who served in Vietnam and Korea, and a few World War II veterans still receiving services as well.

Recent veterans, he noted, “often don’t come in until they need the services.”

The meeting opened with presentations from administrators at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain, the region’s only VA hospital.

Jim Rice, the medical center’s director, said that of about 22 million living American veterans, nearly nine million are enrolled in the VA’s health care system, and about 6.3 million of them have actually received treatment through the VA. About 1.5 million veterans, he said, have no medical insurance.

Last year, he said, his hospital served about 20,000 veterans.

Rice said recent national surveys of patient satisfaction showed VA medical care in a good light.

“On most every measure out there, the VA beats the private sector,” he said, noting that a high level of services would need to continue as veterans enrolled in the Affordable Care Act were offered more choice in providers.

Brad Nelson, Oscar G. Johnson’s public affairs officer, said community based outpatient clinics – like the VA clinic in Hancock on Market Street near Pat’s Foods – have taken on much of the work, handling primary care, mental health counseling, and more recently offering tele-health appointments, where patients can consult with specialist in Madison or Milwaukee via video link.

CBOC coordinator Jill Bruno said the seven clinics that operate on Oscar Johnson’s umbrella now serve about 66 percent of the region’s VA patients. The Hancock clinic is operated by Dr. Gina Lewis-Mercier, and is open from 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“It’s nice that people can be seen in their own community without having to travel,” Bruno said. “They get to deal with the same doctor and same nurses. It’s more patient centered, like a family.

Klutts said his office offers veterans help with medical claims, compensation, family benefits, accessing a trust fund that helps veterans with emergency financial needs, records requests and more.

“Our job is to be a one-stop-shop for any veterans’ issues that arise,” he said. The office has been open seven years, and “has evolved into something way bigger than was first envisioned.”

Klutts also took the opportunity to offer a thank you for the volunteer drivers who last year put 60,000 miles on the VA van that takes vets to out-of-town medical appointments. Regardless of weather, “every morning the van leaves for Iron Mountain,” he said.

The Houghton/Keweenaw VA office is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays. To learn more about its services, call 482-0102.