Working Toward Better Healthcare Access for New Jersey’s Veterans

Lilo H. Stainton | December 7, 2016 | Health Care
Thousands of vets must travel a long way — and wait a long time — to see a doctor. Lawmakers seek remedies for these and other stresses on vets and active service members

Tens of thousands of veterans in New Jersey are forced to travel up to five hours to reach healthcare facilities, where they then can wait even longer to see a doctor. Many also wrestle with service-related mental illnesses and substance use disorders that can land them in jail — or a coffin — before they receive help.

Garden State lawmakers advanced a handful of bipartisan-backed measures on Monday that won’t fix these problems, but could help relieve some of the strain for current and former service members and better connect them with appropriate care and other support.

The Senate budget committee approved two bills, introduced in September by Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) and Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), that seek to improve transportation options for veterans seeking healthcare. One measure directs state funding to counties and municipalities to help them purchase shuttle vans or expand current shuttle bus systems. Another would require the state to fund transportation for those living in state-operated veterans homes if they wanted to see a doctor outside the facility.

A third measure, led by Van Drew and Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), would create a diversion program for veterans and active-service members who are charged with non-violent crimes that could be triggered by addiction, mental illness or other behavioral health concerns related to their military experiences. Instead of going to jail or court, vets identified through this program would be connected with counseling, drug treatment or social services that can help them find food, clothing or housing.

“When they return from service, so many veterans struggle with health conditions like PTSD, addiction and serious depression,” Allen said. “If these combat-related afflictions lead to some kind of criminal behavior, the person should have a chance to get the treatment they need rather than just sit in jail.”

The national network of VA hospitals has come under fire in recent years for serious delays in care, poor oversight and other concerns. Gov. Chris Christie formed a task force to evaluate the veterans hospital system in New Jersey and a report released in 2012 detailed troubling conditions, including long travel times and demeaning service. New Jersey’s more than 400,000 vets, and their dependents, must visit the VA hospitals in East Orange, Philadelphia or Delaware; more routine care be obtained from an outpatient VA clinic in Camden or one of the 15 community-based clinics statewide.

The task force report included a number of recommendations, including calling on the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to beef up staffing at local VA clinics, better coordinate care with community veterans-service programs, and appoint liaisons to the civilian healthcare system. It also called on the VA to create a pilot program to enable those in southern Jersey to see doctors and visit hospitals outside the VA network.

Van Drew said the federal government declined to enact the pilot program, but has made some changes to expand care at local clinics and open outside care to veterans in highly remote areas. But he said those changes have had little impact on current and former service members in New Jersey.

Van Drew recalled that in March a 51-year-old Navy vet died after setting himself on fire outside a VA clinic in Atlantic County, where he was receiving mental health treatment; allies suggested the suicide reflected the man’s struggle to access quality care. A study released in July by the federal government, based on 2014 data, noted that an average of 20 veterans committed suicide each day; six of these former service members were receiving VA care.

“Veterans in Cape May County feel they are still really remote and aren’t getting the care they need,” Van Drew said. “Are we gradually limping toward a better place? Yes. But I don’t know why we’re not sprinting.”

Service members could also benefit from a measure Christie signed into law on Monday that calls on the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to create a comprehensive online registry of veterans service organizations. The law seeks to provide vets a one-stop shop when seeking help.

The measures advanced Monday have a long way to go, as they still require votes in the full Senate and Assembly. One of the Van Drew/Diegnan measures (S-2594) calls on the state DMVA to fund local and county efforts to transport their veterans to the nearest VA hospital; it also appropriates $500,000 in grants to help communities purchase appropriate vehicles.

A second bill (S-2592) requires the state to help fund the cost of transporting residents of state-run veterans homes to doctors appointments outside of the complex. New Jersey operates three veterans homes — in Edison, Paramus and Vineland. While these facilities are staffed by medical professionals, the state had previously paid for vets living there to visit offsite providers, but reversed the policy in recent years.

The third measure (S-307) sponsored by Van Drew and Allen, would establish a Veterans Diversion Program that resembles the state’s drug court, which diverts low-level non-violent offenders on controlled substance charges to seek treatment instead of going to jail. Van Drew said it has been implemented successfully in other states. “There’s no reason it can’t be done in New Jersey,” he said.

As proposed, the bill allows police officers who encounter an individual suspected of loitering, public intoxication or other non-violent offenses to determine if that person is a veteran and assess their behavioral health concerns. If the officer concludes the behavior is likely connected to the vet’s service — an outcome of post-traumatic stress disorder, or service-related addiction or anger issues — they can divert the vet into this program where they can get treatment and help, instead of going to jail.

Van Drew said even if the veteran doesn’t choose this option at first, they can change their mind later. And if a police officer doesn’t make the recommendation, a prosecutor can divert the vet later in the process. “It can happen at multiple levels at multiple times,” he said. “And it allows them to get the care they need instead of sitting in a jail cell to rot.”