Strengthening Veterans’ Health Care Through Community Partnerships

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and working together for the mental well-being of veterans is at the forefront of our nation’s commitment to supporting those who serve us. We are constantly reminded of the importance of community partnerships and their impact on the care we provide to our veterans, especially when it comes to patient-centered behavioral health care.

The Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated health care system in the United States, providing veterans with services at more than 1,200 facilities, including 171 medical centers and 1,112 outpatient sites.

The North Florida and South Georgia (NF/SG) Veterans Health System operates two hospitals; one in Gainesville and one in Lake City; as well as a home-based rehabilitation program, a residential drug rehabilitation program, and a residential rehabilitation program for post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, NF/SG operates 21 additional VA community clinics located within a 50 county service area.

While the VA has enormous strengths to serve our veterans, it sometimes faces challenges and obstacles that can be difficult to overcome, especially when the goal is to provide patient-centered care. Although only about one percent of Americans currently choose to serve in the military, there are more than 20 million veterans in the United States. Of this group, just over nine million veterans are enrolled in the VA health care program.

When VA is unable to provide care in a timely manner or within the VA network, then care is coordinated with established providers within the VA Community Care Networks. This is where community partnerships become vital.

When it comes to providing patient-centered care for behavioral health issues, the VA believes that developing community partnerships becomes even more important. For example, NF/SG partners with the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics in Centerstone. These clinics, part of a national network of not-for-profit mental health clinics, provide compassionate and accessible care to our nation’s heroes and their families.

The VA connects veterans to these community resources. This partnership has resulted in multiple collaborative events, including our annual Pledge to Prevent event, which raises awareness to help end veteran suicide deaths.

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There is no doubt that our teams understand that it is an honor and a privilege to care for those who have served – and we are committed to caring for them. We want to ensure that all veterans have access to the best care possible. But it has to be care that makes sense to the veteran, in that it achieves the desired health outcomes. This can only happen when care is collaborative, coordinated and accessible.

Community partnerships are very important to all of us. When we focus on delivering the right care, at the right time and in the right place, we achieve what is best for each patient.

Our partnership includes educating the community on how they can support service members and their families. Service members, veterans and military families in Northeast Florida are members of all faiths and look to their faith leaders for guidance and support.

However, many religious leaders have a limited understanding of key issues common to the military community. To enhance our faith community’s understanding of the military, our organizations are partnering with Operation New Uniform and The Fire Watch to sponsor the Faith Leader Support and Awareness Training Series. The next training session is scheduled for Wednesday, May 25 at noon, with registration available through Eventbrite or TheFireWatch.org that includes in-person and virtual options.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from and it can affect anyone; therefore, we all have a stake in working together to create an atmosphere of patient-centered care for all. Veterans and their families need us all to work together and that can only be done through community partnerships.

Your engagement, along with conversations about developing a team approach to caring for our community, is a very positive first step. We are committed to serving our veterans and look forward to developing innovative new partnerships that improve the lives of those who have given so much to our country.

For more information about the North Florida and South Georgia Veterans Health Care System, visit va.gov/north-florida-health-care/. To learn more about the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics at Centerstone, visit Centerstone.org/cohen/. For more details on the Cohen Veterans Network of outpatient clinics, visit CohenVeteransNetwork.org/.

David Isaacks is a United States Marine Corps Veteran and Executive Director of North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System. Lisa Eggebeen, LCSW, is regional director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics at Centerstone.

This guest column is the opinion of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of The Times-Union. We welcome a diversity of opinions.

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