By Crystal Bethea, Owner — C3 Wellness Spa
Although American veterans have automatic access to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for medical care following their service to our country, accessing particular VA services can prove challenging. Factors such as where a veteran lives, the availability of specialists, and acceptance of VA insurance benefits have left some veterans struggling to find the help they need. For example, according to data from the US Department of Veteran Affairs, of the 2.8 million veterans who received physical therapy in 2019, only about 27% received their care from the VA.
As a veteran myself, I know firsthand that when a specialist doesn’t take VA benefits, or a provider gets caught up in the antiquated red tape — for which the VA is well-known — it can be a frustrating position to find oneself in.
According to a study published by Statista in 2021, veterans and service members reported that they often forgo seeking treatment or coverage by the VA due to bureaucratic red tape. Many veterans have become accustomed to long waits for specialist appointments, and complicated coverage denials and referral processes for anything outside of standard treatment. Backlogged claims are common, and efforts to streamline processes dating back to the Obama administration have been largely unsuccessful.
VA benefits come with a extensive list of rules, regulations, and eligibility requirements. For some specialists and medical providers, accepting VA benefits is no easy feat — even if they desire to help veterans — however, the VA’s operations are quite outdated. Many offices, for instance, still operate via fax. This failure to update technology leaves filing a claim or gaining a referral a frustrating undertaking for both provider and patient, especially considering that not all providers have the capacity to deal with the extra work of accepting VA benefits.
Change slow to come
Since the early 2000s, there have been efforts made to cut VA’s the red tape and bring services to veterans, though change has been slow to come. Long wait times for care were addressed in 18 separate reports by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Inspector General in 2005. As the demand for visits rose — especially with issues such as PTSD and drug dependency on the rise among veterans — the number of providers did not increase at an equal rate. This left the onus on existing providers to cater to the increasing needs of these veterans.
As more providers enter the medical community with knowledge of veterans’ needs, access to health and other forms of care will increase for veterans. With mental health and drug use at the forefront of concerns for many veterans and their families, access to holistic care for these concerns will become a focus. It will behoove the providers of these services to become expert navigators of the complicated VA system. Care that focuses on the specific needs of veterans can be in short supply due to systemic issues, and the prevailing red tape may scare some veterans away from seeking holistic care or specialty care.
Through our own practice, C3 Wellness Spa, we’ve found that veterans can greatly benefit from holistic treatments such as acupuncture and massage therapy. Many veterans have had deeply traumatic experiences that have wholly affected them — body, mind, and spirit. In addition, we see many veterans dealing with lower back pain, fibromyalgia, and other chronic pain conditions. Holistic methods are proven effective for pain-related issues as well as anxiety, depression, and other concerns that may plague veterans at a higher rate than civilians. However, when there exists barriers to care for something as simple as a wellness visit or blood work, getting veterans access to holistic medical care that could greatly benefit them has proven to be a challenge, until recently. The VA has taken notice of the effects of holistic care and has added a program called Whole Health Option, which now includes tai chi and acupuncture providers to their hospitals and facilities — a huge step in the right direction for vets.
Overcoming the barriers to care
There are barriers to care in the United States that all people face, as is the nature of our for-profit healthcare system. Veterans, unfortunately, are not immune to some of these barriers. Even though they carry coverage from the VA, utilizing that coverage could mean jumping through many administrative hoops. Physician staffing shortages also significantly affect veterans, especially if they are in need of a particular specialty that is not available where they live. There also still exists a stigma and bias surrounding veterans, especially concerning seeking mental health and help for issues such as PTSD or drug dependency.
Providers, veterans, and the VA need to work together to cut red tape and overcome these barriers to care for those who have served our country. The more providers with VA experience that enter the medical field, the better prospects look for veterans as a whole. Allowing veterans the option to choose their own providers within their districts should be granted just as it is for civilians, rather than funneling them to VA facilities too far away just to gain referrals for community care networks. As it becomes evident that there is still work to be done, providers and government entities continue to leverage technology, medical innovation, and policy changes to bring better access to quality care to those who need it the most.
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