April Branstetter, Marc Magill, John Best, Tonya Knez, Kathy Harrilla, Ralph Bozella and Jake Garcia attend an awards ceremony Thursday to honor the Major William Adams Veterans TeleHealth Clinic as a recipient of the Colorado American Legion's Caregivers of the Year Award.

Photo by Lauren Blair

April Branstetter, Marc Magill, John Best, Tonya Knez, Kathy Harrilla, Ralph Bozella and Jake Garcia attend an awards ceremony Thursday to honor the Major William Adams Veterans TeleHealth Clinic as a recipient of the Colorado American Legion's Caregivers of the Year Award.

Major William Adams Veterans TeleHealth Clinic in Craig receives Caregivers of the Year Award

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— Dozens gathered Thursday morning outside of the Major William Adams Veterans TeleHealth Clinic in Craig for an award ceremony to honor the clinic. The occasion was a welcome opportunity to shine a positive light on veterans’ health services after all of the negative attention received by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in recent months.

The clinic was selected by the Colorado American Legion to receive the Caregivers of the Year Award for 2014. American Legion members from Craig and throughout Colorado filled the clinic’s lawn and spilled into the street alongside other veterans, community members and clinic staff.

Chairman of the American Legion’s National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission Ralph Bozella spoke at the award ceremony and emphasized the importance of recognizing those who are offering veterans a positive experience.

“It’s wonderful because we’re here to honor this facility for the good work that they’ve done for veterans in this community,” Bozella said. “And it’s important because there’s been a lot written, and not in a positive sense, about what’s been going on at the VA this past spring and summer.”

The VA has come under fire since an internal audit in April revealed that more than 57,000 vets nationwide have been waiting more than 90 days for an appointment to see a doctor, and 64,000 never even got an appointment.

Providing proper and timely care to veterans is made even more difficult in rural areas where access to VA hospitals and doctors is limited, and individuals must travel long distances for appointments.

The TeleHealth Clinic was started in Craig in 2007 to address this lack of access and was a result of the efforts of the Craig and Steamboat Springs chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars led by American Legion member Gar Williams.

“There’s a lot of good support here in Routt County, Moffat County, Northwest Colorado,” Williams said. “We tried to get a CBOC here, which is a community-based outpatient clinic, and we were told it would take an act of Congress, so we went to Congress. And within a year, we had the TeleHealth Clinic.”

The clinic, which moved to its current location in 2010, was one of the first in the nation to utilize video conferencing equipment to connect veterans in rural and remote areas to doctors.

“This is a good example of leveraging technology to enhance our ability to provide care and access,” said Marc Magill, new Medical Center director of the VA medical center in Grand Junction.

The Craig TeleHealth Clinic offers primary care, mental health care and health screenings to veterans in Northwest Colorado, as well as lab work and immunizations. The clinic now serves approximately 450 primary care patients up from 200 patients four years ago, estimated John Best, D.O., the clinic’s primary care physician based in Grand Junction.

Patients at the TeleHealth Clinic typically meet first with a nurse and can receive care from Best using a magnified camera that can transmit high-definition images of the body such as the mouth, ears, skin or wounds. A magnified stethoscope is available to allow the doctor to listen to the heart and lungs.

“For the most part, they can be seen right here through TeleHealth, and it saves them a three-hour drive,” said April Branstetter, a registered nurse at the Craig TeleHealth Clinic.

“The other thing that’s exciting about this is really you’re just limited by your imagination,” Magill said, listing pastoral, mental health, dermatology and even ICU care as possibilities for telehealth technology. At the same time, he emphasized the need for a “high tech, high touch” approach to serving veterans' needs, which includes meeting face-to-face.

The Craig TeleHealth Clinic also employs the video conferencing technology for its telebenefits program, launched in 2011, to connect area veterans with benefit counselors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Denver regional office.

Magill hopes to further improve Northwest Colorado veterans’ access to health care by participating in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on Aug. 7.

“For veterans who can’t get timely care through the VA, this bill will help them get the care they need someplace else,” Obama said when he signed the bill. “And this is particularly important for veterans who are in more remote areas, in rural areas. If you live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or if VA doctors can’t see you within a reasonable amount of time, you’ll have the chance to see a doctor outside the VA system."

The Memorial Hospital in Craig has expressed interest in working with the VA to serve veterans’ needs, according to TMH CEO John Rossfeld.

“We’re working out the details,” Magill said about the new law, noting that there is a 90-day waiting period while it is being implemented. “We are excited about that because again, anything that can improve that access and can contribute to the quality care that we provide is excellent."

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com.

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