Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that veterans honorably discharged from service may qualify to enroll in Veterans Affairs services.
After years of having Veterans Affairs clinics at South Peninsula Hospital, the VA Homer Community Based Outpatient Clinic finally has a home of its own and is back in service.
On Monday, the VA held a ribbon cutting ceremony at its new facility at 4141 Pennock Street off East End Road.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, VA physicians and assistants had visited Homer for clinics at the hospital, but that option became limited because of the pandemic. Many veterans have been doing telemedicine visits over the phone or via the internet, said VA Alaska Acting Director Thomas Steinbrunner in an interview in mid-August.
Steinbrunner is a veteran himself, having served 34 years in the U.S. Air Force as a health care administrator. After his service, he said he found the VA resonated with his skill set. He came to Alaska as associate director of the VA and was appointed acting director in June.
Tuesday morning, the clinic opened for its first patient, U.S. Navy veteran Evangelina Briggs. She was pleased to have the Homer clinic open and to no longer have to drive to Kenai for health care, she said.
“It’s usually a whole day trip for me,” Briggs said.
VA clinics provide services for everything from routine health care to treatment of service-related conditions. Clinics also offer social and behavioral health services. The Homer clinic will have a physician and nurse visit two days a week for primary care and a nurse practitioner and social worker visit one day a week, with the plan to eventually expand services to five days a week.
“Each of our health care needs are unique to our lifestyle and well being,” Steinbrunner said. “We have a number of very active veterans who utilize the VA as a health resource. We also have a number of veterans who have significant diseases that need to be addressed.”
The lower Kenai Peninsula has an estimated 850 veterans eligible to enroll in the VA Healthcare System. Statewide, about one in three veterans have enrolled in the system, a number Steinbrunner said is probably true for the lower peninsula.
“We’re actively interested in reaching them,” he said.
The VA has had great success reaching out to Vietnam War veterans, Steinbrunner said, especially those who had shied away from the VA.
“They didn’t have a necessarily good experience coming back from Vietnam,” he said.
Any honorably discharged veteran may qualify to enroll in VA services, but they have to actively do so.
“You have to opt into the system,” Steinbrunner said. “… The VA is there for them. We encourage people if you’re eligible for the VA to sign up today. You might not need it. … It’s a great safety net.”
Briggs said she signed up for the federal VA program when she finished active duty in 2016. A military cop, she joined in 2012 at age 28. She just finished her contract in July, but is now in the process of joining the Navy reserves. Briggs met her husband, David Briggs, also a military cop, in the Navy. They have two small children and own the Homer Truffle Company.
However, Briggs didn’t realize the VA Health Care System has an independent program in each state, and veterans had to join the system in the state where they lived. She got into the program after she tried to get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act but found it too expensive. Briggs found out about VA healthcare after her mother came to visit Homer. On the plane down from Anchorage, her mother met a member of 907Vets, an Alaska veterans association.
“A connection was made. I had a really good contact,” Briggs said. “I was able to sign up for the services I didn’t know I could. … I really, really wish I had done it from the moment I separated.”
Steinbrunner said the southern peninsula has a wide range of veterans, “some of the oldest World War II veterans to people who have recently separated from the military,” he said.
The VA has come across veterans in their 90s or even 100s who have never used VA health services.
“When you look at their battle campaign history and you look at the types of things they were exposed to — when the VA processes their claims, you see they have a high degree of service-related disability,” he said. “Last year we enrolled a World War II Army officer who was 99 and 100% service connected (disability) and had never used the VA system.”
Briggs doesn’t have any service-related disabilities and uses the VA Health Care System for routine health care.
“Let me tell you, I was very impressed with their quality of attention and their follow-up and follow-through,” she said of her care.
During the pandemic, many veterans have been getting care through telehealth programs, Steinbrunner said. That’s an option the VA had been urging veterans to use before the pandemic, but especially so now. Veterans can communicate with their providers over a secure system called My Healthy Vet.
“Now with the pandemic, everything is over the phone,” Briggs said. “You don’t get to see a physician or physician’s assistant until the exact issue is pinpointed and you have to see them in person.”
As a percentage of the Alaska population, veterans have been spared in the pandemic, Steinbrunner said of those who have come to clinics.
“We have not had many COVID cases specifically in our facilities,” he said.
The VA does COVID-19 screening and testing at its Anchorage clinics and uses its hospital partners on the peninsula. VA clinics also offer vaccine clinics, such as for influenza shots, and will offer COVID-19 vaccines when those become available. As with other health facilities, the Homer VA clinic follows Centers for Disease Control and Alaska Department of Health and Social Services recommendations for COVID-19 safety.
Over the past five years, the VA has made efforts to improve services to veterans in Alaska and the Lower 48. At a VA listening session in Homer in late 2016, VA officials heard complaints from disgruntled local vets. Steinbrunner said he thinks the VA has improved, particularly in how it works with local health partners and veterans organizations to provide services.
“It takes more than the VA to support our veterans,” he said.
For information on the Alaska VA Healthcare System, visit www.alaska.va.gov. Clinic hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Wednesday. For appointments, call 907-395-4100 and Press 0.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.