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Task Force Seeks End to Long-Distance Trips to VA Hospitals

Recommendation calls for VA to pay for veterans to receive care locally.

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland).
Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland).

Southern New Jersey veterans would no longer have to make daylong round-trips for hospital care under a new set of task force recommendations.

The New Jersey Veterans Hospital Task Force, a group established by state law to develop recommendations for a state veterans hospital, instead decided that a more realistic approach would be to have the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pay for visits to local hospitals.

Depending on the procedure, some South Jersey veterans have to spend more than four hours in a car or bus to visit VA facilities in East Orange, Philadelphia or Wilmington, Del.

“You’d get chills from these horror stories we heard of these long trips,” said Bernard Epworth, an Evesham resident and public member of the task force. If the VA adopts the task recommendations, “they’ll be able to do (hospital visits) in the local community in a lot less time.”

The southern region of the state doesn’t have a VA hospital, although the VA does operate community-based outpatient clinics in the region. For some procedures, veterans spend an entire day traveling to and from appointments, according to task force members.

The 18-member task force recommended a pilot program in which the VA would pay for veterans to receive care at area hospitals, including in-patient stays. The panel also recommended that the VA focus greater attention on women veterans and add staff to its Northfield clinic.

It also recommended moving Ocean County – which has the state’s largest concentration of veterans – from the VA network that includes North Jersey to the network that includes South Jersey. By increasing the number of regional veterans in that network, the VA would increase spending in South Jersey, task force members said.

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland).
Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland).

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland), who co-chaired the task force with Sen. Christopher J. Conners (R-Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean), said the decision to not recommend a new hospital offers South Jersey an opportunity. Van Drew and Connors are working on legislation that would urge the VA to adopt the recommendations.

“We have an opportunity to think outside of the box,” Van Drew said. “Frankly, the VA is a very bureaucratic system and in many of the stories it didn’t always meet the needs of our veterans.”

VA officials’ response has task force members feeling optimistic.

“We are very hopeful that they will and they have indicated that they are looking at it,” Van Drew said, adding that veterans had said they had urinated into bottles during long rides to the VA hospitals.

“These veterans are every bit as brave, as deserving as veterans anywhere in the country, and they deserve to be treated as decently,” he said.

Van Drew added that because Ocean County veterans are counted as part of the North Jersey network the VA is, “therefore, in essence saying that South Jersey doesn’t have that many veterans and doesn’t need that care, which is ludicrous.”

Eugene O’Grady, a task force member and the commander of the American Legion in New Jersey, said the logistics and expense of building a new hospital made that option unrealistic.

O’Grady also supports moving veterans from Ocean County – where he lives, in Barnegat – to the southern network. But he said the loss of patients – and potential loss of funding to the northern network – will make that recommendation difficult for the VA to enact.

Epworth, the former state commander of the Jewish War Veterans, foresees the VA paying the equivalent of Medicare reimbursement rates to the hospitals.

“The VA medical service is outstanding, totally outstanding, all we’re trying to do is help them,” Epworth said, adding that World War II veterans are “in their 80s and 90s. Now imagine a guy sitting in a car or taking a bus for an hour, two hours, then waiting at the facility. “

If the pilot program is approved, “this will be an inspiration for veterans in this community,” Epworth said. “I think they’ll really feel like they’ve really been recognized. “

Task force member Richard A. Pitman, former CEO of Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, said all of the area hospital systems have expressed support for the task force recommendations. Pitman said the task force stemmed from concerns expressed by Robert Frolow, director of veterans services for Atlantic County, that local veterans were taking long bus rides for dialysis and radiation treatments.

“We have guys riding the bus for radiation therapy and dialysis – you have to make frequent trips and it’s an exhausting clinical procedure to deal with,” Pitman said. “When you put a four-hour bus ride on top of it -- holy mackerel.”

While the VA has begun to make arrangements for local provision of dialysis, the demands for local radiation treatments and other services is still strong, Pitman said.

“Over the long pull, this would be so much more cost-efficient than building a new hospital anywhere,” Pitman said. “Every one of those local hospitals would be honored to treat veterans.”

Andrew Kitchemann is healthcare reporter for NJ Spotlight.

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