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Springfield clinic on hunt to care for vets

Thousands of local veterans eligible for free care.Enrollment ensures they would not face penalties from Affordable Care Act.

The government next year will begin levying fines at tax time through the Affordable Care Act against people without health insurance, but uninsured military veterans have an easy out — all they have to do is enroll in the VA health care system.

“This thing is a goldmine,” Buzzy Moore, director of the Champaign County Veterans Service Office, said Wednesday.

Veterans will find that enrolling for care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs automatically shields them from penalties from what’s known as Obamacare. Those penalties will start out at $95 in 2014 for those without coverage, but then jump to $325 in 2015 and $695 in 2016.

The thing is, many veterans still don’t know they’re entitled to health care that’s often free, or else they have preconceived notions about the VA.

The VA outpatient clinic in Springfield has undertaken a major push — believed to be the first of its kind locally — to educate and enroll area veterans in the system, citing the fact that as of fiscal-year 2013, only 3,434 veterans were enrolled there for care.

It’s difficult for local clinic staff to define their service area, but veterans from Clark, Champaign, Logan and Greene counties all seek treatment at the Burnett Road facility, either because of its proximity or its much-touted slower-paced atmosphere than the primary VA hospital in Dayton.

Those four counties combined have a current veteran population of 36,155.

“We have a lot more potential,” said Sachi Sunamoto, in her first year on the job as the clinic office manager.

Marie Palmer, a nurse at the clinic for eight years and a lifelong Springfielder, was given the extra title of outreach coordinator in June, and to say she’s running with it might be an understatement.

She hit up county fairs this summer in Clark and Champaign counties, but she’s also been on the hunt for area veterans by every means to see if they qualify for care.

“I’ve been searching the web, reading the paper and going by ear,” Palmer said this week.

Since June, those efforts have reached 400 new veterans in the area, Sunamoto said.

“They have no idea where we’re located or what we do,” Palmer said. “I thought all veterans knew they had this service available to them.”

The clinic — officially called the Springfield Community Based Outpatient Clinic, or CBOC — will have a rare open house event from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 2.

It’s a chance for veterans to check out the facility, which expanded by nearly 2,000 square feet in 2010, and to enroll in the system.

The local clinic will welcome its fourth full-time provider, a physician assistant, at the end of the month.

Staff said veterans should bring their DD214, or discharge papers, and if they can’t find them, veterans service officers from Clark and Champaign counties will be on hand to assist.

Vietnam-era veterans, in particular, have had varying experiences in the past with VA health care, said Moore, Champaign County’s service officer.

Veterans have told him the last time they sought help at a VA hospital, they ended up being neglected.

“This is a different VA,” Moore said. “This is a caring VA.”

The VA’s Veterans Health Administration hasn’t been impacted by the federal government shutdown, Sunamoto said. All facilities are up and running.

On the other hand, the Veterans Benefits Administration has had to eliminate the overtime for employees that was making it possible to tackle the VA’s infamous disability claims backlog. Even worse, the VBA has said claims processing and payments might come to a halt after October if the shutdown persists.

Throughout the outreach process, Palmer has been surprised by the number of veterans in Urbana and northward — in places like West Liberty and Bellefontaine — who are interested in receiving VA care in Springfield. At the Champaign County Fair alone, Palmer said, she came away with 50 names.

“It is so rich,” she said of the opportunity to enroll veterans north of Clark County. “We need to reach those areas.”

Shelley Kneece, head of the Logan County Veterans Service Office, said she knows of veterans who already use the VA clinics in Springfield and Lima.

All counties are required by state law to provide free transportation for their veterans to the nearest VA medical center, but Logan County currently only has enough vans to drive to the hospitals in Dayton and Columbus.

“I don’t get the opportunity to transport veterans to Springfield like I wish I could,” she said. “But I always put the good word out there for them.”

Along the way, Palmer is finding that many veterans falsely believe that they have to be disabled to get VA health care.

“They do not need a disability to be eligible for the benefits at the Dayton VA and our CBOC,” she said. “That’s one of the things that’s kept them away.”

Another is a fear that using a VA clinic will take away from more underprivileged vets. Just the opposite is true, Sunamoto said.

The more veterans a clinic can enroll, they say, the more services they’re able to offer.

“Middletown just got radiology,” she said.

“They did?” Palmer replied. “Oh, a challenge.”

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