Veterans living in rural communities just got a major financial shot in the arm that will increase their access to health services.

A $1.4 million federal grant to Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center will increase rural expansion of medical foster homes, home-based primary care, clinical pharmacy specialists and use of teledermatology. In addition, a portion of the funds will be used to train rural community clergy to support veterans’ mental health.

The majority of the funds, $1.3 million over a three-year period, will allow the hospital to hire three additional pharmacists, said Chief of Pharmacy Brian Jones. This will free up other pharmacists to be assigned to each of the four primary care teams.

“This will allow 20 more veterans to be seen per week, per team,” Jones said. 

Pharmacists could counsel veterans about smoking cessation and anti-coagulation and cholesterol medication, among other options. 

“In the future filling, scripts could be a possibility,” he said.

Pharmacists “could see the routine patients while doctors see the more urgent vets,” Jones said.

Private medical foster homes can keep veterans out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said Dr. Christopher Taylor, assistant chief of staff. The program allows “private home owners to volunteer to be foster caregivers to veterans.”

How much the caregiver will be compensated for the veteran’s care will be between the veteran and the caretaker. The VA medical center will provide all the medical support.

The caregiver has to be financially stable, the home has to be safe, and the veteran’s bedroom and bathroom has to be on the first floor. The maximum veterans per medical foster home is three. 

Taylor said he thought the program would be up and running in the first few months of 2017.

“This would be a better option for veterans compared to group homes, assisted living and nursing homes,” he said.

The home-based primary care program is designed to serve chronically ill, homebound veterans, most of whom are elderly, who live in private homes or assisted living facilities, Taylor said. Their medical team includes a nurse, psychologist, social worker, dietician and a pharmacist. There are plans to add a physician.

The veteran will be seen by every team member within 30 days and then by a nurse every four to six weeks thereafter and as needed by other team members.

A prevention program involving rural pastors in the 25 counties covered by the medical center will provide a six-month training program titled Clinical Pastoral Education, Chief Chaplain Forest Kirk, said. Pastors, working with family and friends, will identify veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or are acting out.  

With this information pastors can counsel the veteran and refer them to the medical center with the hope that they will see a health care specialist. There are 25 counties the VA is responsible for that have 550 churches, and Chaplain Forrest Kirk would like to get all 550 involved. 

“We’re reaching out to pastors of all faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Sikh — any religious group,” Kirk said. 

If a veteran has a lesion or skin disorder, he has to be referred to a private dermatologist that could take up to eight weeks to get an appointment, said Daphne Rose, registered nurse and facility telehealth coordinator. The VA medical center doesn’t have a dermatologist on staff. About 1,000 veterans have been sent to private dermatologists.

To speed things up, the Muskogee medical center can now send photos of skin disorders to a Denver VA hospital via the veteran’s electronic file and have a diagnosis within a week. All telehealth transactions are through a secure connection.

Reach Mark Hughes at (918) 684-2908 or mhughes@muskogeephoenix.com.

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