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Groups learn to serve veterans from a distance

DR. DAN O’ROURKE (onscreen) of the VA Medical Center in White River Junction conducts a test call at the Virtual Living Room telemedicine center at Bristol American Legion Post 19 when the private room opened this past February. Local veterans can communicate with their doctors via video feed for some appointments, instead of driving or riding long distances to see them in person.

We always have been seeing patients face-to-face based on medical necessity and veteran preference.
— Dr. Daniel O’Rourke, VA Medical Center

A message went up on the Facebook page for American Legion Post 14 in Vergennes this past March 16.
“The Legion will be closed until further notice till the ban is lifted for the coronavirus, sorry everyone!! Stay safe!!!”
In Vergennes and around Vermont, organizations offering services to veterans found themselves scrambling to figure out how to help the people who served their nation in the armed forces. That included big things like offering life-saving medical care, and everyday things like chances to socialize.
How would they offer services when they couldn’t ensure the safety of vets with whom they came in contact? 
“We ceased all of our dinners and ceremonies at the post, for the time being,” said Post 14 Commander Ralph Wenzel. “Last May we cancelled the Memorial Day Parade, we cancelled fireworks on the Fourth of July, and it looks like we’re going to cancel our Veterans Day dinner.”
Wenzel said the mission of Post 14 is to serve local veterans however they can, so members are still meeting to ensure this work  proceeds in spite of limitations. Efforts of Post 14, like providing medical equipment and fuel assistance for local veterans during the winter months, are still feasible. 
“We support and try to support all of our local veterans on any issue that comes up on a case-by-case basis.” said Wenzel, “We still hold meetings, but we’re practicing social distancing as far as that goes. Masks are required, of course.” 
American Legion posts are among several kinds of Vermont organizations that have had to alter how they provide services to local veterans during the ongoing pandemic. Guidelines set by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and government officials have restricted the ways in which local organizations can interact with Vermont veterans, forcing them to find new ways to provide various services.  
The Vermont State Office of Veterans Affairs, for instance, closed its offices to walk-in visits from vets as of March 25. It accepted and processed mail and fax communications and told vets to call 802-828-3379 if they need further assistance. Eventually, though, the office was forced to shift its services online. 
This office helps Vermont veterans file claims and receive the benefits and services they are eligible for, such as disability payments, property tax exemptions, hunting and fishing license discounts and more. Director Robert Burke said this work used to be done in person, but has moved online due to COVID-19 related restrictions. 
“We help veterans file claims for injuries, illness, etc., as a result of their service,” said Burke. “That was all done in person, and that has all shifted to online and over the phone. That’s the biggest impact the pandemic has had.”  
When necessary, services have continued in-person amidst the pandemic. Dr. Daniel O’Rourke, chief of staff for the White River Junction Veterans Administration Medical Center, said the VA Medical Center staff meets with patients remotely when possible and in person when necessary. 
“When the pandemic started, we were well positioned to provide veterans with virtual care, whether that be through VA Video Connect or Telehealth,” said O’Rourke. “We always have been seeing patients face-to-face based on medical necessity and veteran preference.”
For local veterans that don’t have the devices needed to connect online, O’Rourke said the VA Medical Center has been able to provide iPads and ensure they still receive care. 
Addison County was fortunate that this past February, American Legion Post 19 in Bristol opened up a “Virtual Living Room,” or VLR, to offer a private video link to speak with healthcare providers at the VA Medical Center across the state.
The VLR aims to address the problem that veterans in rural communities, like those in Addison County, often encounter difficulties in accessing health care services — just getting vets to hospitals that are far away. Then the pandemic hit and transportation was not the limiting factor — keeping people safe from coronavirus was.
Veterans from anywhere — not just Addison County — are able to call Post 19 and set up an appointment to use the VLR. The 8-foot-by-10-foot room has soundproof doors and walls and an acoustic ceiling. Using the VLR’s computer, vets can log into their email and click on the provided link to conduct a test call with the national VA help desk, to work out any kinks with the technology. Then they can follow another link to set up a video call with their healthcare providers.
Bristol Legion officials said the service has not caught on in a big way since it kicked off in February, but some people do use it. 
And region-wide, the VA’s “Video Connect” telemedicine service has seen tremendous growth during the pandemic. Between Feb. 1 and June 1, the most recent numbers available, the VA White River Junction Healthcare System saw a 1,591% increase in use of the Video Connect. It saw 4,563 virtual visits during that period.
Despite changes caused by the pandemic, O’Rourke said the VA Medical Center continues to provide important services to local veterans in any way that is necessary. 
“The three main services that we provide to veterans are primary care, mental health and specialty services,” O’Rourke said. “While the modality of care changed early on, out of necessity we always were able to maintain providing all of those services to veterans.” 

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