It’s only about 100 miles, as the crow flies, between the city of Denver and the town of Craig, Colo. – but in the winter, with several high mountain passes between the two, it might as well be 1,000. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) benefit counselors are at the regional facilities in Denver, while thousands of veterans lie on the other side of the Continental Divide, in the vast, sparsely populated area known as the Western Slope. By the VA’s own estimate, 8,000 of these veterans are not collecting benefits for which they are eligible.
Nobody can pretend to know why so many Western Slope veterans remain underserved, but geography hasn’t made things easy for them: They’ve generally been limited to a hotline, searching through detailed and often complicated information online, or traveling over the Rocky Mountains to sort things out at the Denver Regional Benefits Office.
On Feb. 1, 2011, after a series of conversations between the directors of the Regional Benefits Office and the Grand Junction VA Medical Center, the Veterans Benefits Administration launched a pilot project to expand its outreach to Western Slope veterans: TeleBenefits, offered by appointment at the Craig Veterans Telehealth Center. Using the videoconferencing equipment already used by veterans to speak face-to-face with health care providers hundreds of miles away, participants can have the details of their eligibility explained to them, receive assistance in filling out forms, or learn of new benefits that may help them or their dependents pursue opportunities in education, employment, or retirement.
The high-definition, secure video chat allows counselors in Denver to check a veteran’s paperwork without a constant back-and-forth via e-mail, phone, or fax. Veterans with complex issues can now avoid the trip to Denver. The video resolution is high enough, in fact, that counselors can read through entire completed forms and verify signatures. At the same time, according to April Branstetter, a registered nurse at the Craig Veterans Telehealth Center, individual privacy is closely guarded. “We get them connected, say hello, do a clarification of identification for both parties, and then we shut the door and leave,” she says. “Then they have a private meeting with the counselor.”
So far, the response has been universally positive. “One comment I heard,” said Branstetter, “was: ‘I didn’t have to wait on the phone, and it was much better to talk to somebody in person.’” The program is slowly gaining momentum – “It’s kind of the way TeleHealth was in the beginning,” Branstetter said. “We didn’t really pick up speed until it was up and running maybe a year. So I think once the word gets out, it will take off.”
It’s important to note that TeleBenefits is not the only option available to Western Slope veterans; once a month, for veterans whose issues are abnormally complicated or who can’t – or won’t – venture to a local VA facility, a counselor from Denver ventures over the mountains and meets with people wherever she can – at the clinics and in libraries and coffee shops.
In Craig, the future of TeleHealth and TeleBenefits is bright: The clinic is in the process of installing a high-bandwidth T-1 line that will enable it to conduct two or three teleconferences at the same time. The VA , eager to leverage its assets to reach rural veterans, is watching the TeleBenefits pilot closely, to see whether the idea is worth expanding to other areas.
The Western Slope TeleBenefits pilot currently allows veterans to speak with counselors face-to-face, by appointment, from several locations, including:
Craig Veterans Telehealth Clinic
Glenwood Springs Telehealth Clinic
Montrose Community Based Outpatient Clinic
Grand Junction VA Medical Center
970-242-0731 (ext. 2555)