Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Many Rural Veterans Still Go Without Treatment

While covering veterans issues for Newsweek for the last decade, I discovered to my dismay that many veterans who live in rural areas are not being treated for their physical or emotional wounds because they simply have no way of getting to a Veterans Administration (VA) facility.

Rural vets - and there are tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of them dating from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to the first Gulf War to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - are invisible to the VA, which surprisingly does not automatically obtain health records or contact information from the Department of Defense when a warrior ends his or her active duty. The VA only knows about and treats veterans who physically show up at a VA facility seeking treatment.

If the rural veteran has post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, is disabled, immobile, working and/or in school, it's often impossible for them to make the sometimes-hours long drive to a VA facility to be seen and then drive home. This certainly applies to veterans living in rural areas of San Diego County and other remote parts of Southern California.


But that is changing.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has made VA access to rural veterans a priority under his watch. Last week, Shinseki traveled to Mankato to tour facilities dedicated to rural veterans' health care and homelessness prevention. Accompanied by Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, Shinseki stopped at the VA's Mankato Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, which currently does not provide primary care services to veterans.

As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports, the VA is trying to expand the clinic to include those services. Right now, the Mankato clinic provides only mental health care. Veterans seeking primary medical care still need to make the 90-minute drive to the Minneapolis VA, which is difficult for older vets struggling with mobility and for younger vets juggling work, school and families.

A congressional subcommittee earlier this year estimated there are nearly 3 million veterans who use the VA health care system in rural areas. That number includes more than 100,000 veterans who reside in especially remote areas. The number of rural vets needing care is only going to grow to because a substantial percentage of service members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are recruited from rural communities, the subcommittee reported.

Last year, the VA authorized almost $22 million to fund more mobile clinics, establish new outpatient clinics, expand fee-based care and increase the use of such technologies as telemedicine, and even equip vans with medical equipment and turn them into mobile hospitals that visit back country areas, reports the Star-Tribune. It's a start, but there is still a very long way to go before the VA even identifies, let alone reaches every rural veteran that needs care.