VINELAND – The New Jersey Veterans’ Hospital Task Force yesterday issued its final recommendations for expanding health care access for military veterans living in the southern part of the state, the four legislative members on the panel announced today.
Following a year of hearings and study on the lack of health care access available to area veterans, the 18-member panel put forward recommendations which it believes should be given careful consideration by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The centerpiece of the task force’s recommendations is the creation of a pilot program which would allow for veterans to receive care at local hospitals using Veterans’ Affairs credentials.
“The task force concluded there is a significant need for additional health care opportunities for area veterans, who currently must travel hours to Delaware, Philadelphia and North Jersey for care. For these individuals, many who are older and are suffering with numerous health problems, the travel is an unnecessary and harmful burden,” said Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May/Cumberland/Atlantic), co-chair of the task force. “Allowing veterans to seek care at medical centers in their communities is a more dignified way of providing them with the health services that they need and deserve.”
“As evidenced by testimony provided during the task force’s hearings, there are practical options that can be acted upon to comprehensively address the increasing need to improve and expand health care services for veterans, most especially those living South Jersey,” said Senator Christopher J. Connors (R-Ocean/Burlington/Atlantic), co-chair of the task force. “In too many cases, veterans are required to travel long distances, during which they must pass by local hospitals in areas where they live in order to receive medical care. Portability of health insurance, that would allow veterans to receive medical care from local facilities, is an option that must be pursued vigorously to address inadequacies under the current system.”
Created by legislation signed into law in 2011, the task force was charged with studying and developing recommendations for constructing and operating a veterans’ health care facility in southern New Jersey, or for contracting with an existing health care facility to provide services to veterans. The panel conducted several hearings during which they heard from veterans and their family members about the challenges veterans face accessing health care from existing VA resources.
Currently, there is no federal Department of Veterans Affairs inpatient veterans’ medical center in southern New Jersey. The VA has established small clinics in Northfield, Cape May and Vineland, however, they are only equipped to perform certain types of outpatient medical services, and often are overwhelmed by the large number of veterans seeking care. As a result, veterans are often forced to travel long distances for their health care needs, including to East Orange, Wilmington, Delaware, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Veterans from South Jersey are just as honorable and deserving as those who live anywhere else in the country. They have earned the right to high-quality health care, and it is the government’s responsibility to provide it,” said Assemblyman Matthew Milam (D-Cumberland/Atlantic/Cape May), a task force member. “Recognizing that the willingness does not exist on the federal level to build a new facility, we have put forward a plan to provide access to care in an efficient and cost-effective way.”
“The Task Force’s recommendations are based on extensive and insightful testimony provided during the hearings held throughout South Jersey, by persons with expertise in both veterans’ affairs and the health care industry,” said Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove (R-Ocean/Burlington/Atlantic), who also served on the task force. “No one is questioning the capability and level of dedication by the VA in delivering health services to our veterans. However, it is obvious from the moving testimony by veterans that changes must be made to the current system to improve the quality of life for individuals who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
The recommendations issued by the task force have been included in draft legislation sponsored by Senators Van Drew and Connors in the Senate, and Assemblyman Milam and Assemblywoman Gove in the Assembly. The Concurrent Resolution calls on the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to support the following recommendations:
· Recognize that the deficiencies in the healthcare needs of veterans living in southern New Jersey is a serious problem that must be addressed as soon as possible;
· Assuming that the construction of a new veterans healthcare facility in southern New Jersey is not feasible, create a pilot program to give area veterans greater access to local medical centers, including Cape May Regional Medical Center, the Virtua System, Atlanticare, Shore Memorial Hospital, the South Jersey Health Care System, and the Meridian Health Care System;
· Recognize that such a pilot program, administered by the department, would save money and greatly enhance healthcare opportunities for all veterans living in southern New Jersey;
· Move Ocean County into Veterans Integrated Service Network 4 from its current VISN, so that veterans from that county, which has the greatest number of veterans in the State, would no longer need to travel to East Orange, Wilmington or Philadelphia for needed healthcare services;
· Provide additional information about the healthcare services that are already available to veterans living in southern New Jersey;
· Focus greater attention on the healthcare needs of women veterans; and
· Provide additional staffing to the Northfield Veterans Clinic, which is an admirable facility but lacks sufficient staff to address adequately the needs of local veterans.
The final recommendation is to create a committee to continue the work of the task force acting as an advocate for veterans’ health care. The legislation, which urges the federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs to support the recommendations, will be introduced at the next Senate quorum.