About two dozen veterans, including St. Cloud VA Health Care System’s new director, Dr. Brent Thelen, attended a Veterans Town Hall Tuesday at Grand Arbor in Alexandria.

Thelen, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1983 to 1992, was appointed to lead the St. Cloud system on Sept. 29. In his brief remarks, he referenced the changes that began taking effect this year through the MISSION Act.

The VA’s new veteran community care program was implemented on June 6. Thelen called it a far-reaching law with more than 50 sections, and said it will take several years to implement it all.

He and Rachel Bradshaw, the St. Cloud VA’s director of community care, spoke primarily about how veterans’ options for health care have expanded, with many being eligible to see health care providers close to home, in addition to continuing to see doctors in St. Cloud.

“In many cases, veterans have a choice to use community care or direct VA care,” Thelen said. “For me, I still choose to have my care at the medical center. I feel it’s important to have that continuity.”

Bradshaw’s message revolved around veterans receiving the right care at the right place at the right time, and how choices may change from routine care to urgent care to emergency care.

“We're happy to serve you for your routine care needs,” she said.

One of the new benefits of the MISSION Act gives eligible veterans access to non-emergency care for certain conditions in the VA’s network of community providers. To find out which area health care providers are within the VA’s network, visit va.gov./find-locations/ or call 833-483-8669.

Most eligibility standards are similar, but the MISSION Act expanded qualifiers for receiving care locally to having in excess of a 30-minute drive time or 20-day wait time for primary care, mental health and non-institutional extended care services, and greater than a 60-minute drive time and 28-day wait time for specialty care.

To exercise the community care option, Bradshaw outlined a process. After confirming administrative and clinical eligibility for care in the community, Bradshaw said the St. Cloud VA will call the veteran to arrange an appointment with a provider in its network.

Prescriptions should still be filled at the nearest VA pharmacy, she said, but short-term prescriptions can be filled at a non-VA pharmacy.

Veterans who have non-routine needs can get same-day services at the St. Cloud VA’s urgent care clinic, which is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

With emergency care, Bradshaw stressed that veterans must seek immediate care nearest them.

“The St. Cloud VA does not have an emergency department,” she said, and in the case of emergencies, time is of the essence. Preauthorization is not needed in these instances. “All that is required is to notify the VA promptly after receiving emergency care.”

But for most care, Bradshaw emphasized that the VA is the best choice. She said wait times and access to services are typically better and getting medications and devices is quicker and easier than outside the VA, and patient satisfaction is higher. The VA is focused on veterans, not profit, she said.

Alexandria VA clinic

The St. Cloud VA system also has three regional clinics, including the Max J. Beilke Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic on 22nd Avenue in Alexandria.

Clinic coordinator Angela Goergen told veterans that the clinic offers a host of services, including: primary care; chronic disease management; mental health services; medication management; clinical pharmacy services; social work services; home-based care; annual wellness exams; routine health screenings; specialty care referrals; telemedicine; tele audiology; lab services and home telehealth.

In addition, same-day primary care physical therapy is on track to be added early next year.

In the past fiscal year, the number of veterans the Alexandria clinic saw increased by 7.2 percent, to 2,970, and Goergen said they have the ability to serve more.