In honor of Veterans Day, the Madison County Chamber of Commerce invited Paul Schuerenberg, a Vocational Development specialist and Community Employment coordinator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Health Administration, to speak.
"There are a little over 1,600 VA facilities in the United States which makes us the largest single health care provider in the United States," Schuerenberg said. "We also do a lot of training and internships for physicians. Fifty percent of all the doctors in the United States did their internship at a VA and we have 6 million patients nationwide."
Schuerenberg said the VA played a key role in the development of the cardiac pacemaker, the CT scan, prosthetic limbs and did the first liver transplant.
"There are approximately half a million veterans in the state of Missouri," Schuerenberg said.
Schuerenberg said the VA or the Department of Veterans Affairs was made a cabinet level organization in 1969 and consists of three very distinct departments.
"You have Veterans Health Administration, that's your hospitals and community-based outpatient clinics, like the one in Farmington," Schuerenberg said. "They provide health care, specialty care and we actually have an in-house nursing home in Poplar Bluff."
Schuerenberg said there is also the Veterans Benefit Administration or as some know it, the Regional Office in St. Louis.
"Every state has their own," Schuerenberg said. "They do compensation of pension exams for veterans who were injured while they were in the service. They do educational benefits which is the GI Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation."
Schuerenberg said Vocation Rehabilitation is when a veteran has a service disability and over time it precludes them from doing their job.
"Like I had a young veteran that was in his 30s. He was a lineman and had injured his knee when he was in the service and got to where he couldn’t do the work anymore, so the VA sent him back to school and now he is an accountant," Schuerenberg said. "Then they also do insurance and VA loans."
Schuerenberg said the third department is the National Cemetery Administration which takes care of national cemeteries and provides head stones, foot stones and markers.
"An interesting fact, veterans are about 7 percent of the population," Schuerenberg said. "Every year 115,000 start college and every year 100,000 graduate. That’s a pretty good graduation rate."
Schuerenberg said there are many ways the VA can work to help veterans and partner with communities as well.
"We just had a community outreach event in Poplar Bluff where all the community providers, mental health hospital, the career centers, everyone gets together to provide services," Schuerenberg said. "I think we are going to try and do one here in February. I think is what we are looking at tentatively."
Schuerenberg said usually they provide blood pressure screenings, hair cuts, food and clothing giveaways and can help with other problems from locating a birth certificate to help with transportation.
"We also have a lot of specialty programs," Schuerenberg said. "We work a lot with homeless veterans."
Schuerenberg said there is also a Veterans Justice Outreach Program where veterans who have lesser, non-violent charges can go to Veterans Court to try and have the charges mitigated or eliminated.
"Which is a big deal if you know anybody that for some reason has a felony on their record," Schuerenberg said. "It follows you the rest of your life. It precludes you from a lot of employment, and it could have been something not serious. It just happened."
Schuerenberg said the VA is also working on innovative things to make the healthcare system easier for veterans.
"We are doing a lot of home health care now," Schuerenberg said. "It's easier for us to send a nurse out to set up a veteran's medications for them than getting the veteran in to us to do it because one of the main obstacles that we face is transportation."
Schuerenberg said a new program allows nurses and doctors to communicate with their patients without either of them traveling.
"We actually have programs now where the veterans will have a little TV screen in their house and they can call in at a designated time and there will be a nurse on the other end," Schuerenberg said. "They can see each other and they can talk. They can make sure the veteran is staying on their diet or staying on the right foods or whatever it is they need to do to stay healthy."
Schuerenberg said there is also a push to get away from trying to give medicines for everything.
"Like you come in and your blood pressure is a little low, you need to be talking to them about what they are eating or any exercise and those types of things instead of just giving them a pill," Schuerenberg said. "So we are trying to be more proactive in that."
Schuerenberg said the VA is also trying to be proactive when it comes to pain management as well and is looking at substitutes.
"We are looking at a lot of alternatives," Schuerenberg said. "We are looking at meditation therapy. We are looking at acupuncture. We are looking at alternative medicines other than opioids, but it’s a long, hard battle. We’ve got a lot of veterans that have been on opioids for 20 years, 25 years and they’ve become addicted if not physically, psychologically."
Schuerenberg encouraged everyone who is a veteran or knows a veteran to ask them to enroll for healthcare even if they do not want to use it.
"Everyone has this myth that there is only so much room for patients at a VA facility," Schuerenberg said. "Well that's not right, because the more patients we have, the more money we get and the more doctors we can hire."
Schuerenberg said veterans can enroll at any clinic or online.
"A lot of times you never really know where you are going to find a veteran," Schuerenberg said "You know when you get out of the military they don’t tattoo it on your forehead. Every time I see a banner or a sign that says 'thank you veterans,' it really puts a smile on my face."