Returning Vets Tax VA Health Care System

Forty-two people with ties to Connecticut have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but thousands more have returned home seeking health care for both physical and mental wounds.

The VA Connecticut Healthcare System is attempting to cope with this influx of new veterans, who have different needs than service members of wars past.

The biggest impact has been on mental-health services, said Roger Johnson, director of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. Over the last three years, 50 staff members have been added to help veterans adjusting to civilian life and some who are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Veterans with hearing problems from firing weapons and listening to the noise from tanks and equipment have strained the audiology department, said Johnson. They are also coming back with strains and sprains from wearing protective gear and lifting heavy items, and breathing problems from all the dust and sand.

They are younger than other groups of veterans, with an average age of 33, and more are women, about 12 percent. The VA plans to keep expanding its women's care program, anticipating that the number of women will continue to rise.

At the same time, those from World War II are moving into the 85-and-older category and needing more services.

So far, the system has been able to cope with the demand from both groups because the newer veterans need more outpatient services, while the older veterans need more inpatient services and end-of-life care, Johnson said.

More than 4,200 who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan have enrolled with the VA system in the state. But they are not all being seen by doctors at the VA's two main campuses and six community-based outpatient clinics; some simply enroll to get into the system in case they need services in the future.

Most enrolled at the Newington campus, followed by the West Haven campus and then the outpatient clinic in New London, which indicates where these veterans are most likely to receive services.

For the 2007 fiscal year, 2,140 of these veterans were seen in 14,258 visits, for an average of about seven visits each, according to the VA. For the first quarter of the 2008 fiscal year, 1,335 were seen, meaning that the total this year will most likely surpass last year.

Johnson says that relatively few are severely physically wounded. The number of veterans seeking services who have lost limbs or eyesight, or suffer from severe traumatic brain injuries, stands at about 10 to 20, he said. They tend to get their inpatient care from military hospitals, like Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center (Bethesda), and then transfer to the VA system for outpatient care.

Just getting all the veterans into the system can be a challenge, Johnson said. The VA provides information during briefings for returning soldiers, he said, but these soldiers are often overwhelmed with information at these sessions, at a time when they are focused on getting back to their families.

“They are young and not really health care driven,” said Erin Blatchley, a nurse who manages the program for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. “A lot of these things, they think they'll go away. It's really the generation, I believe.”

Blatchley has an easier time reaching out to Connecticut National Guard members, who come home as a unit, and other reservists, but often active-duty soldiers are discharged individually from different posts around the country.

“Unless they know to come here or they have been hurt or sick and their unit is referring them to us, we don't necessarily know who they are,” she said.

As more veterans return home, Johnson said health care providers will need to learn more about how to help those with mild traumatic brain injuries. More than 15 percent of the newer veterans nationwide show signs of traumatic brain injuries, he said.

“The question is, what is the long-term damage, what do we need to do differently and what kinds of services do they need?” Johnson said. “That is probably going to be a whole new field we need to get into.”

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