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DAV volunteers take the long road to get vets to and from VA hospital

Posted: August 9, 2014 - 9:54pm  |  Updated: August 9, 2014 - 10:07pm
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Shawn Davies, 51, a former Marine, waits to be taken by Coleman to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center on Thursday in Dublin, Ga.  Terry.Dickson@jacksonville.com
Terry.Dickson@jacksonville.com
Shawn Davies, 51, a former Marine, waits to be taken by Coleman to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center on Thursday in Dublin, Ga.

BRUNSWICK | At 5:45 a.m. Thursday, Wayne Coleman climbed behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer with a six-hour round trip ahead of him.

Coleman is a volunteer driver for the Disabled American Veterans Transportation Network. Each Thursday morning, he and other drivers start in Brunswick and make stops in Darien, Ludowici, Glennville and other cities to fill the six available seats with veterans bound for appointments at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin.

While the veterans were on the road Thursday, President Barack Obama signed the Veterans’ Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act. The bill is intended to reform the scandal-ridden Veterans Administration after whistleblowers told of fabricated wait times at VA hospitals. The act provides $16.3 billion to hire more physicians and nurses, to build or expand facilities and to give veterans the option of getting treatment in their local hospitals rather than travel long distances to VA clinics or hospitals.

Shawn Davies might qualify.

Davies, 51, met Coleman at the Winn-Dixie on Altama Avenue for his first trip in the red-white-and-blue Explorer. Davies, who served in the Marines in Operation Desert Storm, normally gets treatment at the VA Clinic in Brunswick, but his VA-supplied CPap machine for sleep apnea needed service, and he had to go to Dublin for it.

“Normally we drive, but we just had some work done on our vehicle, and we didn’t want to put it on the road for that distance. It’s a nice little ride,’’ he said.

It was more complicated Thursday than adding to the nearly 250,000 miles on their Chevrolet van, his wife, Cathrine said.

“It’s the first day of school, and I’ve got a funeral to go to in Darien,’’ she said.

Shawn Davies, who is partially disabled, gets treatment for a service-related foot injury at a VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Brunswick, but sometimes there’s no avoiding the trip to Dublin.

Retired Army veteran Joseph Martinez has a reliable truck, but he’s getting up in years and is grateful to have a ride to Dublin.

“It’s nice,’’ he said recently of the DAV ride. “I take the newspaper and read it on the way and sometimes take a nap.”

Coleman should have left Brunswick with three veterans, but two on his list didn’t show up, meaning that he traveled with a couple of vacant seats.

Tina Herring, head of the Georgia Veterans Services office in Brunswick, compiles the list each week.

The transportation service is hampered by the size of the Explorer, but a new passenger van has been received in Dublin and assigned to the Brunswick DAV chapter, she said. The van must first be painted and have other work done before it goes into service, Herring said.

Veterans would like treatment options closer to home, but Brunswick is about as far away from a VA hospital as any place in the state, Herring said.

There are also outpatient clinics in St. Marys and Valdosta and a larger VA Outreach Clinic in Waycross, but for specialties, surgery and more series issues the only options are VA hospitals in Atlanta, Augusta and Dublin.

State lines are no boundaries for care. Veterans in Camden County, for example, can go to the VA medical center in Gainesville and those farther west go to the one in Lake City. Veterans in the Savannah area often go to the VA medical center in Charleston, S.C.

The new VA bill should give veterans options closer to home, but it’s too early to say how it will help, said John Suggs, public information director for Georgia Veterans Services.

Suggs cautioned, “I’m a state employee talking about a federal program,’’ and said it will take awhile to learn the full impact. The bill includes some things that will certainly help, including a new clinic for Cobb County — the metro Atlanta county with the state’s second largest concentration of veterans, Suggs said.

On first reading, however, it appears the new bill will expand opportunities for veterans to receive care from local physicians at local hospitals.

“There’s always been the possibility you could get services outside the VA,’’ under so-called fee-based outpatient care, Suggs said.

That program requires pre-approval for treatment for a particular condition, and the payment is actually a reimbursement, which can take longer than many patients and physicians want, Suggs said.

“It takes a little while to file and get everything settled out,’’ he said.

It’s also not as if specialists are required to participate: They might not like dealing with the bureaucracy or accepting fees equal to those of Medicaid, Suggs said.

Suggs said that it could, however, spare some veterans rides longer than the one from Brunswick to Dublin to see specialists.

“The VA has certain specialists available only at certain hospitals,’’ he said. If a local specialist is willing to provide the treatment, “Someone sitting in Albany may not have to go to Augusta for a specialty,’’ he said.

Asked how soon veterans could enjoy the provisions of the new law, Suggs said the best guess is it will be months before new programs are fully in place.

“Nothing is ever easy,’’ he said.

 
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