VA to Veterans: You May Already Qualify For Health Care

Feb 17, 2014

United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
Credit United States Department of Veterans Affairs

The Affordable Care Act has forced residents along the Roaring Fork Valley to figure out what to do about insurance… whether it’s sign up for a plan, or pay a fine. But many in the Valley can already get discounted or free care. That's because Veterans Affairs, or the VA, has opened up its doors to more military veterans who served in the Vietnam War or the Persian Gulf War (also called Operation Desert Storm).

Tom Ziemann is a Care Coordinator with Veterans Affairs. That means he works with all kinds of different doctors to help make sure a veteran is getting the right treatment. Ziemann works in Grand Junction, but keeps an eye on the VA’s Glenwood Springs clinic. He says, “A lot of folks were looking at having to get insurance and therefore having to pay premiums, when as we speak, they’re eligible for VA health care.”

 Ziemann is worried there are hundreds of vets in the Valley who could get care, but don't know they can sign up with the VA. In the past, a veteran had to meet a few qualifications for getting health care. They had to make below a certain income, or they had to have something called a service connected disability. Thing is… the VA now knows that there's a lot more health problems that qualify as a disability. For Vietnam vets, that's because of a powerful chemical weapon US troops used, called Agent Orange. For example, Ziemann points to Type II Diabetes: “So if a Vietnam Veteran has that, they should be not only coming in for healthcare with us, but also applying for and potentially receiving disability payments based on that. Or something like prostate cancer in men. Definitely something that now we know is linked to Agent Orange.”

So the list of ailments that qualify is longer for Vietnam veterans, and there isn't a requirement about income anymore. For Vietnam vets who served between 1962 and 1975 qualifying for VA health care comes down to this: “If they were what we call boots on the ground, they were actually in country, that’s their ticket into VA health care right now.”

  Greg Tonozzi is a stone sculptor in Marble. He served in the Vietnam War but didn’t qualify for health care until recently. He heard about it from family, and signed up with the VA. Tonozzi says he’s lucky not to have flashbacks or PTSD, so when he went down to the VA, “They were more worried about Agent Orange exposure and things like that. So far I’m doing pretty good.” Tonozzi says it's worth it to make the trip to Glenwood Springs.“My health has really improved. They did some screen tests on me, hearing tests. Got me on the right vitamins, and even had a dietician calling me once in a while,” he said.

 Part of the reason for expanding the requirements is that the VA wants to better track veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, no matter how small the dose might have been. VA doctors want to know more about conditions or diseases connected with Agent Orange, and make sure vets with those problems are getting care. Same goes for Operation Desert Storm veterans. That conflict is also known as the Gulf or Persian Gulf War. Ziemann explains why: “Part of the rationale for that is this whole issue of what we now refer to as the Gulf War Syndrome, or Unexplained Illness Syndrome. Kind of a broad brush of different symptoms. mostly gastrointestinal, neuromuscular types of things, skin rashes, there’s something going on there. And here we’re twenty years out, but there’s still a lot of unknowns about what exactly is causing these cluster systems that seem to be prevalent in this cadre of veterans.” So, the VA wants to bring as many Gulf War veterans into the system as possible, to get a better sense for what's going on --  and how to better treat it.

Now, the VA clinic in Glenwood Springs does something called tele-health. Jenell Hilderbrand is a Registered Nurse there. “I call it an arm’s reach from the VA. When the vets come here, when they’re assigned to the clinic, they see their provider via Skype, it’s accessing pre-op anesthesia visits, podiatry, cardiology…” she said, with specialists and primary care doctors ranging from Denver to Salt Lake. Hilderbrand and Ziemann agree there are hundreds of veterans in Pitkin, Eagle, and Garfield counties who qualify for care, but haven’t come in. Which could mean far lower co pays or sometimes even free care for them. Tom Ziemann is hoping that if enough veterans sign up for care in Glenwood Springs, “This clinic could expand into a regular clinic, where there would be doctors and nurse practitioners right here.” There’s no guarantee… especially since it would literally take an act of Congress. But Ziemann says it’s worth a shot. Especially with so many younger, more recent vets struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and transitioning back into civilian life.