A Veterans Affairs health system in Northern California has enlisted the help of the largest U.S. provider of walk-in medical care to expand treatment options for veterans.

Beginning May 24, veterans who have a minor illness or injury and are enrolled in the VA Palo Alto Health Care System may be able to seek care at a MinuteClinic, the walk-in health facility available at many CVS pharmacies.

Under a regional pilot program, veterans who call the VA Palo Alto nurse advice line may be referred to a MinuteClinic.

Dr. Stephen Ezeji-Okoye, VA Palo Alto deputy chief of staff, said the $330,000 one-year pilot program could serve as a model for other VA facilities nationwide.

The program, he said, is designed to give veterans access to medical treatment closer to home and when VA hospitals and clinics are closed or at capacity.

"This really does help push VA's movement to integrate care more seamlessly in the community," Ezeji-Okoye said. "[VA leaders] are interested to see how this goes and what potential implications it might have."

Two years ago, the VA was the center of a scandal that showed some VA hospitals maintained appointment schedules outside the official system and that lengthy appointment delays contributed to veterans' deaths.

As recently as April, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying the same issues — including scheduling errors and appointment date revisions or padding — continue to be a problem across the Veterans Health Administration.

Ezeji-Okoye said the new program for the 60,000 veterans enrolled in care at the VA Palo Alto Health System is not a response to the system's ability to meet access standards. Instead, he added, the MinuteClinic partnership will be an option for veterans to get care closer to home and on nights and weekends when VA care may not be available.

"We see this as augmenting the care we provide," he said.

There are 1,137 MinuteClinics in 32 states, according to MinuteClinic president Dr. Andrew Sussman. The facilities employ nurse practitioners and physicians assistants who treat minor medical issues such as ear and throat infections, sinus issues, sprains and minor injuries.

According to Sussman, 14 MinuteClinics in the region will participate in the program.

"We see this as a collaboration with the existing system and helping provide another choice for patients to go to for their care. We are proud to be working with VA," Sussman said.

Raising concerns last month among veterans service organizations, a blue-ribbon commission studying the future of VA health care that its members planned to recommend that veterans receive the bulk of their health care through private physicians paid for by VA.

Currently, veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or cannot get an appointment at VA within 30 days, are supposed to be referred to the private health system through the Veterans Choice program.

Both Ezeji-Okoye and Sussman said the MinuteClinic agreement is not part of the Veterans Choice program or any larger effort to outsource veterans to private health care.

"Partnering with the community really allows us to be able to provide more convenient and more accessible care. Really, it's a question of how we fold community care into VA. It's really an extension of VA care," Ezeji-Okoye said.

Veterans enrolled in VA care at Palo Alto or its affiliated hospitals and clinics who want to use the benefit must get a referral from the nurse advice line. No copayment will be needed at the time of care, and veterans can order any VA formulary medications prescribed by a MinuteClinic provider at the clinic's CVS store.

VA officials said MinuteClinic has agreed to send any medical records generated by the visit to VA to ensure they are included in the veteran's health history.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@miltiarytimes.com.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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