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Illinois lawmakers hope to address gaps in health care for veterans

Illinois lawmakers hope to address gaps in health care services for veterans when they return...
Illinois lawmakers hope to address gaps in health care services for veterans when they return to Springfield in January.(Mike Miletich | Mike Miletich)
Published: Nov. 9, 2021 at 6:31 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 9, 2021 at 7:26 PM CST
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QUINCY (WGEM) - As the country prepares to honor veterans this week, Illinois lawmakers held a hearing to address gaps in access to health care services for veterans.

Federal and state leaders told the House joint committee Tuesday that they strive to provide care to service members as soon as possible so they won’t fall through the cracks.

The number of homeless veterans who don’t receive health care remains a significant concern for lawmakers. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says field workers constantly try to help homeless veterans. But, they admitted there are more housing vouchers available than sites to shelter veterans.

Similarly, Dr. Alan Bridges noted you cannot have health without a home.

“This is a critical piece of health care for veterans,” Bridges said. “We have expanded access to housing for veterans tremendously in the 18 years that I’ve been Chief of Staff. The number of veterans that we are serving continues to rise. This is a very vulnerable population. Anything that we can do to provide them housing and health care, we are most interested in.”

Mental health care is also a top priority for veterans. However, lawmakers told the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) that vets may be uninsured and not have easy access to those services.

Acting IDVA Director Terry Prince says one of the biggest problems is that many veterans don’t know enough about the available care options. However, he noted that people sometimes also see too much information and it’s too much to handle.

“We have to look at hiring more individuals and provide peer-to-peer - training our community partners to work with veterans and be able to speak the language to identify these needs to ensure that a veteran doesn’t become homeless or doesn’t run out of food,” Prince said.

Prince feels that peer-to-peer assistance can help veterans get the help they need before situations become dire. Although, he also stressed that staffing is a tremendous hurdle due to the “Great Resignation.”

Committee members also worry that Illinois veterans’ homes are only at half capacity because there aren’t enough employees to help aging veterans.

While many people utilized telehealth services throughout this pandemic, many know that broadband access is a significant barrier to that care. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to create cellular-based notebooks to help veterans in rural areas receive telehealth.

Leaders also know the VA caregiver program is critical to keeping veterans out of nursing homes. They want to keep service members with the people who love them as much as possible. However, caregivers also need assistance.

Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) says many caregivers don’t receive adequate compensation for their work. Cassidy wanted to know what the state is doing to help families to navigate the payment system. She also asked what Illinois could do to create a separate program to ensure caregivers are adequately valued.

Prince said IDVA employees don’t want caregivers only to have a phone number to call when they need help. Instead, he said the department should help everyone walk through the payment formula process because they know it’s challenging.

“We’re probably also dealing with folks who’ve given up,” Cassidy said. “When your choice is am I going to spend 20 minutes writing out this formula or am I going to spend 20 minutes making sure that my husband doesn’t have bedsores, the bedsores are going to win every time. Making sure that we are providing that level of service is critical.”

Dr. Eugene Lipov told lawmakers that veterans should also receive more psychiatric care. He also argues society should change the name of post-traumatic stress disorder to a post-traumatic stress injury to eliminate the stigma.

“If the name of PTSD could be changed to PTSI, there is much more people who will be seeking care,” Lipov said. “Hopefully leading to a reduction of suicide, improved care, reduced homelessness, and markedly improved function.”

The committee also talked about racial disparities of health care also found in care for veterans. Human Services Secretary Grace Hou said community providers and state-run psychiatric hospitals have “warm handoffs” to ensure people get the services they need.

Still, some representatives feel Illinois must do more to ensure homeless veterans get treatment for any illnesses or disabilities they have.

Lawmakers hope to address these issues when they return to session in January.

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