An understanding of how to access VA health benefits.

More than 450,000 veterans live in Missouri, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Cole County alone is home to approximately 36,000 veterans. The medical needs of the veteran population are wide and varied. Everyday primary care needs, including podiatry and optometry, are on the rise, as are behavioral health care needs for PTSD, substance abuse, sexual trauma, and suicide prevention; the Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2014 that, on average, 21 veterans commit suicide in the U.S. daily.

The VA’s most recent National Survey of Veterans, conducted in 2010, indicates that 42 percent of veterans are unaware of the VA health care benefits available to them, and 26 percent did not know how to apply for these benefits. To tackle this problem, the VA launched its Concierge for Care service in 2017 to help veterans enroll in VA health benefits shortly after their separation from the military. However, there are also boots-on-the-ground eff orts to help veterans at the local level.

A Navy veteran of Desert Storm, Jason Hees has been a veteran’s service officer at the Missouri Veterans Commission in Jefferson City since 2013. He spends his days helping local veterans navigate the VA medical system. He finds that older vets in particular are less likely to know about the benefits available to them and that many veterans have misconceptions about what their health benefits do and do not cover.

“The most beneficial reason to contact a veterans service officer is to learn what benefits are available through the VA,” Hees says. “We assist veterans in obtaining those benefits and advocate on their behalf by dealing with the bureaucracy so they don’t have to. It helps them access care because we let them know all available options and help them apply for them.”

Hees says the biggest need he encounters is home health care for aging veterans, which is not surprising, as nearly half of Missouri veterans are 65 or older. Additionally, medical needs vary based on the conflict in which a veteran served; Hees says Vietnam veterans have a high percentage of heart disease, diabetes, and various cancers due to herbicide exposure in theater. He also counsels veterans in need of behavioral health services, which isn’t always an easy conversation.

“The biggest needs for behavioral health services that I encounter are usually for posttraumatic stress disorder due to combat or military sexual trauma, or for depression and anxiety,” Hees says. “Many veterans are hesitant about contacting behavioral health, but after speaking to them about the subject, I can usually alleviate a lot of those fears. All of the veterans service officers are veterans, and many of us use those same services.”

Once a veteran has enrolled in their VA health benefits, where do they go to receive medical attention? One option for receiving health care, including behavioral health care, is at Jefferson City’s Harry S. Truman VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic. One of Missouri’s 30 CBOCs, the Jeff City clinic allows veterans to receive a variety of outpatient services without having to travel to a larger VA hospital.

“Many of our veterans live in rural areas of the state,” says Jeffrey Hoelscher, public affairs officer for the Truman VA. “The purpose of our outpatient clinics is to provide as much comprehensive care as close to home as possible.”

The CBOC is located at 2707 W. Edgewood Dr., with a larger facility set to be completed in December just down the road. This new facility will be about 10,500 square feet, an increase of nearly 3,000 square feet over the current facility, and the number of primary care exam rooms will increase from seven to 10. “In addition to 10 primary care rooms, which include a triage room and a women’s health room, the new clinic also will have four telehealth rooms, four optometry rooms, two mental health rooms, two podiatry rooms, and an audiology suite,” Hoelscher says.

The telehealth rooms will allow patients to visit with a health care provider using a video calling device, such as a cell phone or web camera, an option that is expected to be helpful for patients living in rural areas. The new facility will also offer laboratory services.

“In [fiscal year] 2018, we provided care for 4,718 veterans at the Jefferson City facility, which translated into 15,941 patient appointments,” Hoelscher says. “We estimate a 30 percent increase in patient care with the addition of more space and more services. Additionally, with the opening of this new facility, we have room for expansion if there’s a future need.”

Additional resources are available to veterans, including a crisis hotline:

Enroll in VA health benefits: 1-877-222-VETS

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255