Connecticut hospitals will be required to ask all patients if they are veterans, under a new state law that takes effect Oct. 1.
The law is part of a nationwide effort conceived by the State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz to make private health providers aware that they are treating veterans, since most veterans don’t go to federal Veterans Health Administration facilities. The goal is to improve veterans’ diagnoses and health care because military experiences are linked to certain illnesses, she said.
Schwartz said veterans don’t always know about health risks connected to their military service and that health providers need to become educated about them. “We’re promising that you’re going to get a more informed health provider looking for things you may not even be aware of as a veteran,” Schwartz said.
In addition to the state law, Schwartz convinced the American Academy of Nursing to undertake a national awareness campaign informing health providers of illnesses connected to military service. Called “Have You Ever Served,” nurses are distributing pocket cards and posters to doctors and hospitals where they work. They provide detailed information about physical and mental illnesses linked to eras and locations of military service, suggested questions to ask patients, and resources for veterans.
For example, the materials state that Marines and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune, N.C. from 1957 through 1987 may have been exposed to chemical contaminants in the water and as a result, are at risk of getting certain cancers and having other problems, such as scleroderma, infertility and miscarriages.
Schwartz, an Air Force veteran with a master’s degree in nursing and a doctorate in public health, predicted dramatic results from the state law and the national awareness effort. “It will revolutionize the way veterans in our state will be cared for,” she said, adding that it will also “revolutionize the way veterans are treated in the rest of the country.”
She said the actions are more significant now that the U.S. House and Senate have passed bills to permit eligible veterans to go to private doctors if they live at least 40 miles away from a VA health facility or if they can’t get prompt VA appointments. This will further increase the number of veterans seeking private care. Congress has to reconcile the two bills and tackle funding the estimated $50 billion yearly cost.
According to the VA, nearly 9 million veterans nationwide were enrolled in VA health care last year out of 22 million veterans in the country. But, just 6.5 million went for treatment.
In Connecticut, just 59,000 used the system last year out of more than 207,000 veterans in the state.
Not all veterans are eligible for VA services. Factors for determining eligibility include: serving at least 24 months of active duty; not having a dishonorable discharge; commendations; disabilities; and income. President Barack Obama has promised returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan five years of free VA health care.
Connecticut hospitals support the new state law, said Michele Sharp, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Hospital Association. “We believe that every veteran should receive timely, appropriate, and excellent care, and this is one additional step we can take to acknowledge their sacrifice in service to our nation,” she said.
State Rep. Jack Hennessy, a Bridgeport Democrat who is co-chair of the Legislature’s Veterans Affairs Committee, said that the new law gives veterans “the feedback that we care, that we as a state are concerned about them, and want them to get the help they need.”
“It creates a positive interactive experience that wasn’t there before,” Hennessy said.
Nursing schools are also teaching their students to ask patients if they are veterans. Jean Lange, dean of the School of Nursing at Quinnipiac University, said her school is committed to ensuring that students have “the knowledge to be able to identify and ask the right questions when they encounter veterans in their care.”
Lynn Babington, dean of Fairfield University’s School of Nursing pointed out that “the health care needs of veterans and their families are different from the needs of the general population.” She said if a patient isn’t asked about military service, potential connected health issues could be overlooked. “You wouldn’t know unless the patient brought it up,” she said.
State Sen. Carlo Leone, a Stamford Democrat and Veterans Affairs Committee co-chair, noted that some health issues connected to military service don’t surface until years after a person has served. So, a provider, aware that patients are veterans, can look for diseases they are predisposed to getting because of when and where they served, as well as looking out for “what they are liable to get in the future,” he said.
Schwartz came up with the idea of ascertaining if patients are veterans after a veteran visiting Connecticut from Maine became severely ill and was hospitalized. His wife, still at home, contacted Schwartz for help. The commissioner informed the hospital that the man had been in Vietnam and possibly exposed to Agent Orange. That information prompted the doctor to home in on a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she said.
Hennessy, the state representative who is an Army veteran, said he didn’t apply for VA health care when he left the service in 1978 because “it never occurred to me.” He said many veterans don’t take advantage of services available to them. “They just move on with their lives and don’t look back.”