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6 Tricks for Getting the Most Out of Veteran Health Care

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I was honorably discharged for medical reasons in 1987, which is the year I first used the Veterans Health Administration. Along the way I have learned some tricks I think others might find useful when pursuing health care through the VA.

I have a rare disease, and frankly, “tough” is one way to put the level of care I experienced in the past. That is putting things lightly. As a veteran, I can think of numerous terms to describe my past care, but I think FUBAR is probably the best and most of you veterans will know what that means.

I have found some things to do that will help you along your journey of care with the VA.

1. Be kind to receptionists.

First off, let me make sure everyone understands something about me: I deeply appreciate the services I get from the VA and make no mistake about it, I think there are mostly decent people providing care and services related to care. I have found most even want to help you, but have become jaded by the system. Just like you and me, people who work at the VA are frustrated by a system that at times is incredibly inefficient and difficult for them to work with as well.

Receptionists are the first key to getting appropriate care at the VA. They see lots of vets daily and it has been my experience that being polite to them works wonders. They have a hard job for relatively low wages, so always be polite. Always say hello and ask how they are doing before you ask them anything. Notice their cubicle: Do they have lots of pictures, plants or sayings or their on status as a veteran? Because, by the way, many of them are veterans. Take notice of them and they will take notice of you. They have tons of access to your providers and if you make them a part of your care, they can and will make lots of doors open.

2. Use MyHealtheVet.

Second, MyHealtheVet is a goldmine, full of all sorts of things that can help you, and often a good place to start making your care better. I would encourage any veteran who receives care through the VA to sign up and get familiar with a fantastic tool freely available to all veterans. You can read every report on your visits; please take the time to read them. You will find out a great deal from the notes of your visit and often you will see the hurdles your providers have to go through to get anything they need done for you. You will also see information on what the staff and doctor think of you and the results of every image and every blood test. Again, read these; see what the report says and make sure to nicely remind your provider’s staff and your provider about them. Sadly, most VA doctors have a massive caseload and a lot of them will have not time to read these reports prior to your visit. So, they will often respond positively to your work in keeping up with your care.

I honestly can’t state how important MyHealtheVet is. Also use direct messaging; not too much, but if you are having a difficulty or a health problem, notifying your doctor through direct message is very effective. If you can in your area, set appointments through MyhealtheVet. It is by far the easiest way to get an appointment. I am sorry for this large point, but the subject of this is very important. I can’t stress highly enough for you or your loved ones to use MyhealtheVet.

3. Get to know your primary care doctor’s nurse.

Third, your primary care doctor’s nurse is your gateway to care at the VA. They help their providers by acting like a case manager and usually are responsible for starting orders for tests and referrals to various departments at the VA, as well as communicating with you through direct messaging. Nurses, based on the doctors notes, also submit your doctor’s request for Veterans Choice Program (VCP) providers. These nurses are great, and it is worth your time to get to know them. Again, notice their triage room; do they have family photos? Do they share any of your spiritual beliefs? Are they veterans too? Notice everything and respectfully comment or ask them questions related to who they are. A nurse on your side is an incredible resource and often will be the one who gets stuff done for you, so I encourage you to make note when they do something extra, mail them a thank you card or give them one on your next visit. Treat them right and they will bend over backwards for you.

4. What to do if you have difficulties with staff.

Fourth, if you are have difficulties with staff or doctors or nurses, do not go to the patient advocate; they are overworked and are often in a tough position because they get paid by the same people with whom they have to wrestle. This suggestion is going to sound odd but I promise you, it is effective. The next time you get treated bad or someone won’t listen to you and you think you need to speak to an advocate, then I suggest the chaplain.

The chaplain is often nondenominational and they are not looking to cram religious stuff down your throat, but what they can do effectively is help you with problems you are having at the VA. They are also listed on your direct messaging so I encourage you to reach out to them. It is amazing what they can get done and how people’s tones seem to soften after you speak with the chaplain. They’re a great resource, so I would encourage you get to know them or write them a direct message when you are having difficulties. I’ve found them much more effective than a patient advocate.

5. Tell doctors if you are having difficulties talking about your health.

Fifth, and this part is very important: If you have difficulties with talking to doctors about your health, then please tell them. You will be amazed how many doors will open if you admit you are having difficulty with anxiety, or your post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) flares when you talk to doctors. Tell them how you feel; ask for their help because you are having difficulties. As a part of this fifth suggestion, I want to include the following: Bring someone with you. If every time you deal with someone, they treat you poorly and you find yourself snapping, bring someone with you. Your mother or spouse or friend or anyone you can get to go with you. I was amazed how much this helped me. I was injured in the military and found I got PTSD when dealing with doctors and nurses, so many of my appointments went bad. When I started bringing someone with me, everything changed. The person who was my difficulty completely changed and became my greatest advocate. I had someone with me who could politely tell me to relax or to calm down or even tell the doctor I am anxious. Having someone with you is a great way to better handle the whole experience.

6. What to do if you need to cancel appointments.

Lastly — and this is a crucial one — never miss appointments. If for some reason you have to miss one, notify them that you need to reschedule as soon as possible. Everyone at the VA medical center you go to is incredibly busy and when you miss an appointment, that is a slot another veteran could have had. When you are scheduled for a test or blood work, go for them and follow their instructions.

This is but a few of the things I have learned after going through years of what I saw as terrible care. I can now say that, although there might still be issues, things have gotten much better and I no longer walk into the facility having anxiety.

I appreciate all of my fellow veterans and the loved ones who help them. I hope you find this helpful.

Photo by Benedicto de Jesus on Unsplash

Originally published: October 15, 2018
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