Collaboration is vital to ensure veterans receive safe, quality care

As we look toward the future of healthcare in our country, we must aim to prioritize the health of a well-deserving group of individuals, our nation's military veterans. While there has been debate about how the veterans' health system should be managed, St. Louis-based Ascension, the nation's largest non-profit health system, has a deep-seated belief in the importance of public-private partnerships. Our commitment to clinical safety and quality and to provide care for the whole person — body, mind and spirit — ensures the focus is on the veteran's experience. That's why it's essential that collaboration is needed to address the healthcare issues facing our country today, and especially for those who have sacrificed and have served us so well.

Ascension's mission calls us to serve all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable. It also aligns with the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs, as we participate in the Veterans Choice Program and other community programs, we, too, serve and honor the men and women who are America's veterans, a population we must never forget.

So far, we have cared for nearly 8,900 individual veterans through almost 17,500 appointments, individuals who might still be waiting for care.

Our national health system has been a leader in the call to move toward value-based care, as efforts to keep people well and keep communities healthy are rewarded over volume. Ascension has challenged itself to think differently about how we care about our veterans and use learnings from the program thus far, from providers who participate in the program and most importantly, from veterans themselves on how we can better improve care delivery for this important population. Being where we need to be, and how we need to be there, has always been a hallmark of Ascension, and it is what drove our interest in being a valued partner of the VA to serve veterans under its community care programs. We recognize that the needs of veterans are unique, and we want to be working closely with the VA and its other partners so that all veterans get the care they need, when they need it. The VA and private providers have a lot to learn from each other, and more importantly, each has a desire to do so.

When we first started participating in the program, we knew education and awareness about the program were key to our ability in making sure that eligible veterans had the resources they needed to access the program and their local healthcare services. We launched a national and local public service announcement-style campaign that focused on cutting through the confusion for veterans and providing them with information on how to find, navigate and receive care. We created a microsite to enable both veterans and providers to access resources and to offer feedback. For example, we understood the importance of the sensitivity to military culture and knew it was important to equip our providers with resources on how to appropriately screen veterans based on their prior duty assignments, and understand service-related illnesses that may be associated with serving in the armed forces.

We have worked hard to not only meet, but to exceed the standards of care designated by the VA. Since the program began at Ascension, we have reached more individuals and have exceeded those standards of care. Our measures of access include achieving the VA standard of 30 days to schedule an appointment with 22.9 days, and accomplishing an office wait time of 3 minutes, where the VA standard is 20 minutes.

While we are still working to make improvements, we have a solid process in place to help ensure that no veteran falls through the cracks. We aim to be good stewards of the system, and are humbled that these veterans have chosen Ascension to help expand their access to timely, high-quality healthcare. Ascension created a nationwide network of veteran health navigators to help veterans find their way through the care process and ensure seamless coordination between the third-party administrator, provider office and veteran by serving as the central point of contact. These navigators — many of whom are veterans themselves or come from a line of military veterans — are well-immersed and knowledgeable of the nuances of the program and work relentlessly to find solutions. We have found this role to be critical in connecting veterans to the care they need and in identifying any holes in program benefits. They are a model for how we deliver care, as they champion access and coverage.

At our National Veterans Call Center, our associates have consistently shared stories about how rewarding it is to be able to continue serving other veterans by answering calls and routing veterans to their local navigator to work with the third-party administrator to schedule appointments with Ascension providers. Comprised of veterans, Call Center associates assist in aligning physicians with the program.

As the new administration, Congress and the VA plot the course for the Veterans Choice Program, Ascension is at the ready to continue serving our veterans alongside the VA. Let us use all of the available resources and continue to learn from one another to reduce and eliminate the barriers that have deeply frustrated veterans, their families and the health care providers dedicated to the ideal of caring for those who sacrificed so much for our nation. Through this public-private partnership and others that may stem from it, we are confident that we will advance access to timely healthcare for our military veterans as we commit to striving to provide the best care we can offer to our veterans, as they have so bravely committed to our country.

Anthony R. Tersigni, EdD, FACHE, is president and CEO of St. Louis-based Ascension, the nation's largest non-profit health system.

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