Local vets push for medical care

Hopes for local VA

It's well before the sun rises when two Routt County veterans, Michael Condie and Michael Ilku pile into a vehicle and head to the doctor's office.

The duo leave Steamboat Springs traveling the dark roads to Craig at a quick clip, before picking up fellow Moffat County veteran, Robert Cooper. But the group wastes little time and is off again, pressing to meet appointments scheduled throughout the morning at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center.

The routine is one some veterans are getting used to. But the situation isn't ideal nor is it fair, say rural veterans who feel they can't conveniently access the healthcare they were promised when they signed up for military service.

"There are lots of vets in rural areas that are being penalized because we live too far away," said Condie, the Veteran's Affair Service Officer for Routt County.

"If we could get these services done locally we wouldn't have to drive the distances we do today."

Without a VA hospital or clinic for veterans in Northwest Colorado, some veterans have little choice but to seek out medical assistance in the metropolitan areas.

Through the help of grants and funding by county governments, Condie has spearheaded an effort in the last few years to provide transportation for local veterans wanting to access VA hospitals in Denver and Grand Junction.

Other regional efforts help veterans in Grand, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties access veteran medical care.

It's a more than 370-mile round trip to Grand Junction from Steamboat Springs and a more than 300-mile round trip to Denver.

But veterans hope an amended bill sponsored by Rep. Scott McInnis of Grand Junction, will change all that -- offering a solution to the problem of inconvenient healthcare as opposed to the Band-Aid effort headed by veteran advocates.

Still in its infancy stages, the amendment proposes rural veterans are granted the same rights to access to healthcare as their urban veteran counterparts.

Cited the "Geographically Isolated Rural Veterans Act of 2003," the bill changes criteria such as required veteran population density and reasonable distance a veteran is expected to travel to access a VA facility.

McInnis' amendment, which was drafted in late November, states VA care can be contracted through existing healthcare facilities for veterans in an area with a population density less than seven people per square mile and for veterans who live more than 150 miles round trip from the nearest Department of Health care facility.

"In a nutshell, without drowning people in the intricacies, this will improve access by allowing people not to have to drive hundreds of miles just for blood pressure checks through the VA," said McInnis Press Secretary Blair Jones. "We want to make it easier for vets to receive the health care they deserve."

Blair said the bill will be introduced after the first of the year and its priority in pushing for approval is high with McInnis.

Pressing for Change

For rural veterans who feel betrayed by the system they served, those good intentions are speaking volumes.

Veteran Ilku served as a Navy officer for 15 years and planned to retire five years later with the service until he was let go in 1977 because of a saturation of troops at the time. A lucrative second career as a computer engineer ended soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks leaving Ilku on a fixed income. Insurance coverage that he once paid $650 a month for he and his wife was out of the question a year after getting laid off. But the pain from a hernia due to working odd jobs in construction was making life difficult for the 60-year-old veteran. It wasn't until Ilku connected with the Routt County VA office and headed to the VA hospital that his situation improved.

"The first time I went in they found the hernia and set me up for an operation three months later," Ilku said. "I couldn't fix it before, because I couldn't afford it. It cost me $50 (at the VA hospital) as opposed to a couple thousand dollars."

That kind of assistance is also critical to Condie's health, which requires almost $1,200 worth of medication a month. Through the VA hospital, he can get that same treatment for $35 a month. A policy enacted last summer allows veterans to refill prescriptions through local hospitals instead of traveling to VA hospitals. On average, prescriptions run $2 to $7 but a new bill may raise that cost to $25.

Still the benefits are needed to serve the 1,700 veterans in Moffat County and an estimated 1,800 veterans in Routt County, said Bill Harding, Moffat County Veteran Services Officer.

Offering veterans healthcare without the lengthy commutes may take changing perceptions, he said.

"When a doctor sees you in the waiting room they don't see the hardship it took for you to get there," he said.

Some of the drawbacks stalling legislation in favor of convenient veteran healthcare are politically driven, Harding added.

Congress is comprised of only 17 percent veterans, he said, and thousands of WWII vets die each week of old age.

"As a political base were dying off," Harding said. "There's an indifference to vet's issues."

Gaining Momentum

But the support is thriving among local governments and hospitals to offer fee-based care clinics for veterans. The go-ahead however, is contingent upon the federal allocation of dollars, part of the aim of McInnis' amended bill.

Sen. Jack Taylor of Steamboat Springs thought the measure would carry weight especially in light of current high-profile military operations underway in Iraq and Afghanistan and a heightened sense of patriotism.

"I can fully understand why this hasn't happened before, hospitals want to get paid," he said.

Taylor said he has supported the issue for years and plans on drafting and circulating a resolution to send to Congress in support of localized vet clinics.

The potential is there for veterans to access local health care that could prevent lengthy trips for large and especially small procedures, such as blood tests and physicals.

The community would support the effort, said Marilyn Boudlin director of the nursing program at Colorado Northwestern Community College.

"We are absolutely in support of this," she said. "It could be another clinical for us. I really think vets should get care in a timely fashion without having to drive so far."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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