Veterans Lung Cancer (copy)

Dr. Nichole Tanner, a pulmonologist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, talks with veteran Bobby Wilson about his long-time smoking habit. Under the Veterans Community Care Program, more veterans may qualify for care at non-VA facilities if they meet certain criteria. 

The federal government is revising the criteria for veterans to qualify for treatment at non-VA health care facilities, but hospital leaders in Charleston say the new program may not have much of an impact here. 

The Veterans Community Care Program allows veterans to seek care elsewhere if they must wait more than 20 days for a primary care appointment or 28 days for a specialty care appointment.

They may also qualify if it takes them more than 30 minutes to get to a Department of Veterans Affairs facility or if they need a service that is not provided by the VA. Veterans who are referred by a clinician or qualified for the community choice program under the previous guidelines are also eligible.

VA representatives emphasized that these standards could change in the future.

In South Carolina, the VA operates more than 20 facilities across the state. 

Scott Isaacks, director and CEO of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, explained that the new community care program is an updated version of an older one. 

It was established after VA hospitals across the country were widely criticized for long wait times. In 2014, The Post and Courier reported the results of a federal audit that found veterans in Charleston waited an average of 45 days to schedule an appointment with a primary care doctor at the VA hospital. 

Now, Isaacks said that 99 percent of the time patients can seen within the time frame laid out by the community care program. 

"That's not going to be an issue for us," he said. 

Because the VA operates a significant number of clinics throughout the state, staff at the Ralph Johnson medical center see fewer patients for simpler procedures. For smaller things, like physical therapy and routine check-ups, most veterans don't need to come to the hospital.  

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"Much of this care is still available to our clinics," Charleston VA spokeswoman Tonya Lobbestael said. 

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center sees roughly 80,000 veterans every year, Isaacks said. Nationally, the number is around 9 million. 

“The changes (to the community care program) not only improve our ability to provide the health care veterans need, but also when and where they need it,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in a press release.

Isaacks explained a computer system flags veterans who are eligible for the community care program. 

He anticipates the program will have a larger impact in states struggling more with access.

About one-third of VA patients nationally qualified for community care under the program's older guidelines. 

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.