Area may feel brunt of VA cuts


Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 10:01 p.m.

Facts

FYI: VA health care

  • For questions on how to enroll or if you qualify, call the enrollment coordinator at the Gainesville VA Medical Center, 376-1611, Ext. 7332.

  • A decision by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last week to stop enrolling veterans with the highest incomes could have its greatest impact in North Florida.
    One in five vets joining the rolls in the past two years has been a Florida resident, and more move here each year, according to John Pickens, public affairs officer for the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System.
    Currently, 95,000 veterans are enrolled in the North Florida/South Georgia system, Pickens said. Although he could not estimate how many potential enrollees here would be affected by the cutoff, nationally it is expected to exclude 164,000 veterans in the remainder of this year.
    The decision was made to allow the VA to reduce a backlog that has 265,000 veterans waiting at least six months to see a primary care physician, according to VA Secretary Anthony Principi.
    "More than half of all new enrollees are higher-income veterans without compensable service-related medical problems," Principi said. "Without an enrollment suspension, demand will outstrip our capacity in staff and resources, further reducing our ability to serve our core constituency."
    "If you look at the VA nationally, one out of every five veterans enrolling for health care is enrolling in Florida," Pickens added. "So if you look at new veterans coming into the VA health system, about 20 percent is occurring in Florida. We have had a 35 percent increase in the number of vets we are caring for in the last two years."
    Pickens said 15,000 new veterans enrolled here last year, with another 10,000 signing up this fiscal year.
    "It's a result of people retiring, moving to the Sunbelt, and of veterans who did not previously use the VA but now see it as a good health system," he said. "The prescription drug benefit, which is not available through Medicare, is particularly attractive."
    The majority of those new enrollees, he said, are in the category called Priority Group 8. They do not have a service-connected disability. Their income is above the VA threshold, which is $24,644 for a single veteran and $29,576 for a vet with a spouse. It is also above the index established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which varies from place to place, but is set at $30,800 for a two-person household in the Gainesville area.
    Those who have enrolled or whose application is postmarked on or before Jan. 17 will be "grandfathered in," Pickens said.
    "I think we have gotten a lot of new vets who have been living in this area, but perhaps thought the VA services weren't available to them," he said. "We have established a number of community-based outpatient clinics, which now have brought VA health care closer to where they live."
    The service area for the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System includes 37 of Florida's 67 counties, plus 19 counties in South Georgia. Medical centers are located in Gainesville and Lake City, with three large outpatient clinics in Daytona Beach, Jacksonville and Tallahassee, and five smaller community-based outpatient clinics in Inverness, Leesburg, Ocala, St. Augustine and Valdosta, Ga. Both Gainesville and Lake City also have nursing home units.
    The recent decision "will absolutely have an effect on the backlog of people waiting for their first appointment," according to Pickens. Last June, about 16,000 veterans were on that waiting list here. Before the Jan. 17 decision, the list had been whittled down to about 4,000.
    Secretary Principi had to make an extremely difficult choice in making this move, Pickens said.
    "It will allow us to focus on providing timely, quality care to our core constituency - those veterans with service-connected conditions who have no means to get health care anywhere else, along with those who have special needs such as spinal cord injuries, prosthetic needs or blindness," he added.
    Pickens urged veterans who were interested in the VA's health care services to fill out the paperwork, then let the VA determine what category they would fall into.
    "If you have questions, call the enrollment coordinator at the Gainesville medical center," he said. "Don't just assume that you won't qualify."
    Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun. com.

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