The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will be posting patient advocates on St. Thomas and St. Croix, allowing veterans to retroactively submit mileage reimbursement claims for medical travel in 2009 and 2010 and making some smaller changes, according to Delegate Donna Christensen.
The VA Inspector General made those and other recommendations after investigating, at Christensen’s request, whether V.I. veterans have equal access to health care, the delegate said in a telephone conference with reporters Tuesday afternoon.
The investigation focused on several complaints raised by V.I. veterans, finding some to have more merit than others, and making specific recommendations to redress those complaints inspectors found to be valid.
One "really good outcome of the investigation" is the recommendation for additional patient advocates, Christensen said.
The decision came about when the Inspector General’s office was investigating patient satisfaction and found that V.I. veterans were never asked about their level of satisfaction, she said.
Looking into the cost of medical travel for V.I. veterans, the report concludes that relatively generous allowances for private care and the ability of V.I. vets to get reimbursed for travel expenses make up for the dearth of local services.
But inspectors also found very few requests for reimbursement, prompting them to recommend area veterans be allowed to retroactively submit for travel expenses incurred from Jan. 9, 2009 through Sept. 30, 2010.
Asked to look into language barriers for English-speaking V.I. veterans seeking care in Puerto Rico, the Inspector General’s team found there were communication problems with nonmedical staff but not with medical staff, Christensen said.
While they found the quality of care was not affected, they recommended Puerto Rico’s VA facilities ensure that procedures and forms to document English language proficiency for physicians, nurses, and residents are followed as required.
The full VA report and a short summary may be viewed or downloaded here.
In other Congressional business affecting the territory, Christensen said the U.S. Department of Interior has approved a National Park Service study endorsing the creation of a St. Croix National Heritage Area.
The national heritage area label or designation is a conservation strategy devised by Congress to support local residents in the preservation of their own natural and cultural heritage, according to the National Park Service.
The designation would be permanent but has no restrictions or rules or authority over residents and does not supersede or change local laws. The area so designated is not a park, and people’s property rights are not affected, Christensen said. It would, however, make various historical and cultural preservation projects eligible for federal grants.
And there is federal money set aside for national heritage areas that could provide up to $1 million per year for up to 10 years, she said.
While this is a step toward Christensen’s longstanding goal of creating a national heritage area in the territory, now legislation must pass both houses of Congress, and she has no idea how long that process may take, she said.
"I am not expecting an easy process, because of how long it has taken to get to this point," Christensen said. "Members hold up bills for many reasons. But I think we have a good chance of getting it through the House. It is the Senate that has been the problem in the past."
She said she was "not that optimistic for this year," but expected to see it pass before the end of the 112th Congress, she said.