Where We've Come, and Where Still to Go, for Veterans Care in South Jersey
The community will come together this month to honor the service and ultimate sacrifice of Charles Ingram III. A year ago this region was shaken to its core when Ingram took his life to end his suffering at the hands of a VA system neglecting veterans. Because of his death, the VA has finally begun to meet the promises it made long ago to South Jersey veterans.
This time last year I joined with Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez to announce our lack of confidence in the VA Wilmington Medical Center leadership, which oversees South Jersey’s community-based outpatient clinics (CBOCs) and care of local veterans. We forced the VA to remove oversight of our CBOCs from Wilmington, demanded staffing levels to meet the real needs of our veterans, and set clear goals for the VA to meet or face bipartisan congressional action.
Our directives resulted in action. The director at Wilmington was removed. More than a dozen medical and support staff positions have been identified and filled at our CBOCs. A new, expanded Vineland clinic opened, and hours extended at both Vineland and Northfield CBOCs.
Last year the VA had zero provider agreements with local medical facilities. Let me repeat: Not a single formal agreement was established to send our veterans to existing non-VA facilities. Today the VA has provider agreements with more than 220 South Jersey medical providers including Inspira, Shore Medical Center, Cape Regional Medical Center, HealthSouth and the Bacharach Institute. A wide range of services is now available locally, from behavioral health and cancer treatments to dental care and women’s health.
More local services means fewer South Jersey veterans travel to VA medical centers in Wilmington or Philadelphia for treatment. In fact, from September to March there was a nearly two-thirds reduction in the number of veterans crossing state lines for care from the Northfield (69.5 percent) and Vineland (62 percent) CBOCs. This led to a long-overdue development: the end of the outdated VA shuttle van.
In February I was pleased to announce the reviled VA shuttle van, which had looped between the CBOCs and Wilmington, was ending. This bathroom-less van had long been the symbol of neglect and disrespect for our veterans. Now with VA Express, veterans who require or opt to be seen at Wilmington receive point-to-point car service. With a user-friendly reservation system, veterans no longer spend hours in transit and/or waiting for fellow veterans to finish their appointments. VA Express will even make stops for bathroom breaks at the veteran’s request.
There has been real progress the past year to make right what was undisputedly wrong. The VA has made tangible strides, but is far from mission accomplished. A renewed trust, while on the mend, is not yet cemented. There is more to be done and I intend to keep the VA’s feet to the fire.
At my insistence, our CBOCs will remain outside of Wilmington’s oversight for the foreseeable future, particularly while the search for a new director continues.
Expansion of services in Cape May County is also a priority and I am pleased the VA has committed to establishing a larger presence, including expanded clinic space. Preliminary meetings with local veterans groups to identify possible locations have started and additional feedback sessions with county veterans are being scheduled. It is expected that this new CBOC will come online by early 2019.
The VA has also pledged to continue its community outreach, from creating two positions solely focused on community engagement to additional enrollment and benefits clinics held in cooperation with my office. Reversing the VA’s historic lack of communication and engagement in South Jersey will take time and a sustained commitment.
Finally, in Congress, I have reintroduced legislation inspired by area advocates to create a local pilot program giving each eligible veteran a “Health ID,” enabling them to receive medical care at non-VA facilities. The community clinic or hospital would simply bill the VA.
Our veterans have pledged their lives to protect our freedoms; we should all honor their service and sacrifice. For those seeking a hardship waiver for non-emergent care, my Mays Landing office stands ready to assist. If there is a question or concern about VA services, please contact Mike Francis -- my veterans liaison -- at 609-625-5008.
It is clear veterans care in South Jersey has measurably improved the past year, but we still have a long way to go to fulfill the promises made to those who wore the uniform for the nation.