Thousands of veterans are getting VA health care from the comfort of their homes.
VISN 8, a network within the Department of Veterans Affairs that represents Florida, South Georgia and the Caribbean, recently opened a virtual care center.
The Clinical Contact Center is open 24/7 and is the first of its kind in the VA.
Health professionals across the region are available to answer veterans' questions and concerns and can hold virtual appointments with them through an app known as VA Video Connect, which has all of their patient data from VA facilities.
“A veteran can call from, let’s say Puerto Rico, and can be speaking to a nurse up in Lake City, Florida, and then the provider could be in West Palm Beach and the pharmacist could be in Orlando, and we handle it all virtually,” said the center’s chief nurse Theresa Mont.
The center has handled more than 300,000 calls since it opened last summer.
Dr. Veronica Sikka said only a small fraction of those calls, about 2,000, required vets to see a doctor or advanced nurse practitioner through the app. The majority of issues can be addressed by nurses and pharmacists over the phone.
"Things like medication refills, minor aches and pains, now that we're in cough, cold and flu season, we're able to really manage those without having them (veterans) have to wait extended periods of time in their primary care clinic or in the emergency department,” she said.
Sikka said of the 2,000 cases that required visits with a provider, about 25% were serious enough for the provider to recommend the patient seek in-person care at a clinic or emergency department.
Sikka added that the center is an important resource for vets who live in rural areas or don't have easy access to VA care. She cited veterans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who relied on the center as Hurricane Dorian threatened their communities.
"When unfortunately a lot of the clinics had to be closed for safety reasons, the Clinical Contact Center was open, so we were able to avoid 90% of our veterans having to present to an emergency department in severe weather conditions,” she said.
The service is free except for medication copays. Pharmacists can order medication for patients to pick up at local drugstores or mail it to their homes. There is no additional charge for shipping, even if the medication has to be overnighted.
Peter Wills, the center's chief of pharmacy, said the VA’s clinical pharmacists can prescribe drugs and order lab work without a doctor’s referral.
“So if a veteran runs out of their prescription, they're out of refills, our pharmacists are able to renew those prescriptions to get them enough medication until their next appointment so we're able to continue that (care),” said Wills. “They're also able to prescribe new medications, which is really unique from other pharmacists outside in the community.”
The center is only available for veterans enrolled in the VISN 8 network and is intended to supplement primary care, not replace it. Vets who call from other regional networks will be directed to their local VA facility.
VISN 8 officials said those networks are using the center as a model to create similar versions in their areas.