During Army Veteran Joy Ilem’s recent visit to the Washington, D.C. VA medical center, her primary care provider referred her to a specialist in the community for her annual mammogram. Ilem has received her medical care from VA for the past 25 years and was a bit skeptical at first.

“When my provider told me that I needed to be seen in the community, I wasn’t sold on the idea,” she admitted. “I would have preferred to wait for an appointment in VA but that just wasn’t possible in this situation.”

To her surprise, she had a very positive experience. She received prompt, courteous service from her VA medical center’s new Referral Coordination Team.

“My primary care provider said someone from the coordination team would reach out to help me schedule an appointment,” she said. “The coordinator called and made it easy. Even when I left a message because I needed to reschedule the original appointment because of changes at work, she called me back the same day and helped me get it rescheduled.”

Referral Coordination Teams

One reason the process was easier is because VA is using Referral Coordination Teams (RCTs). RCTs simplify the process when a Veteran’s health care provider refers them to another provider, whether in VA or in the community.

“We want to empower Veterans to make more informed decisions about when, where and how to receive their health care,” said Mark Upton, M.D., and acting assistant under secretary for health for Community Care. “Like they did with Ms. Ilem, our RCTs are providing Veterans with information about their options before they decide where to receive care, in VA or the community. This is making the referral and appointment process easier than ever.”

The teams at each facility are dedicated to connecting with Veterans quickly to improve scheduling timeliness. Team members are knowledgeable about the specialty care resources available within their facility. They work with Veterans to understand all eligibility and preferences when scheduling appointments with specialists.

Army Veteran Joy Ilem

What can Veterans expect

Teams are now being set up at each VA medical center and the new referral coordination process is essentially seamless for Veterans. Veterans can ask their provider or PACT team for more information. They can expect these three changes when the teams are in place at their location:

  1. More information about available options for appointments, including face-to-face care, virtual care options or even a telephone appointment if that’s appropriate.
  2. An easier experience resulting in faster appointments, and an all-around better experience when providers make referrals to a specialist.
  3. Appointments that reflect each Veteran’s preference for direct care in VA or care in the community.

“Veterans should know that these referral coordination teams really are there to assist you and help you through the process,” Ilem added. “They get you the information you need. They know how to help you understand if you’re eligible for or need to see a provider in the community.”

Preparing for increased demand

The use of RCTs is a critical part of VA’s strategy to prepare for increased demand for care later in 2021, as many Veterans elected to put off routine health care during the pandemic. Millions of routine procedures and appointments were canceled, changed or deferred over the past year to reduce unnecessary risks and potential exposure to COVID-19.

Fortunately, VA was an early adopter and pioneer in telehealth. It quickly ramped up the use of virtual care, primarily video and phone visits, when the pandemic began.

VA’s use of video visits increased by more than 1,700% within fiscal year 2020. Video visits accounted for 160,000 video visits to homes in a single week.

“In-person care is absolutely the right way for a provider to meet with a patient for many health concerns. VA will continue to provide face-to-face care,” said Susan Kirsh, M.D., the executive director of VHA’s Office of Access to Care. “However, video visits are also appropriate. They’re equally as effective as face-to-face visits and often the preferred choice of Veterans for many other health care visits.”

With increased safety measures to minimize exposure to COVID-19, VA completed more than 66 million Veteran visits in fiscal 20, including in-person appointments, telephone and video visits.

As demand for care is expected to rise later this year, VA will continue to leverage all available care options to make sure Veterans get the care they need while enabling clinicians to spend more time providing direct patient care.

Expanded services and access

The expected increased demand will occur alongside VA’s unprecedented efforts to provide COVID-19 vaccines to Veterans and staff. While continuing to meet Veterans’ health care needs each day, VA has also already provided at least one vaccine to more than 2.4 million Veterans and staff.

In all, VA has administered more than 4 million doses to Veterans, employees and federal partners.

VA is also continuing to address the challenge of providing care to millions of Veterans who live in rural America. This has included adding VA medical centers and outpatient clinics in communities where it makes strategic sense.

With the MISSION Act, VA has also increased opportunities for Veterans to receive community care when VA facilities are too far away, have longer wait-times, and don’t have the care services Veterans need, or other circumstances.

Even amid the pandemic and the rollout of vaccines, Veterans have more options for health care today than at any time in history and most continue to choose to receive their care in VA.

VA has hired more than 86,000 employees since the end of March 2020. That includes 18,000 registered nurses and nurse practitioners. As VA puts RCTs in place across the network, we are strongly positioned to meet Veteran’s health care needs now and in the future.

Veterans can continue to count on VA to provide the highest-quality care. Referral Coordination Teams will help make it easier and faster to schedule appointments with specialists.

When Veterans have a choice where and how to receive their care, we want them to choose VA.

Rick Fox is the communications director for the VA Office of Veterans Access to Care.