CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In advance of Hurricane Idalia’s expected landfall in Florida this week, Veterans Affairs officials on Tuesday began moving some veteran patients out of potentially impacted areas and sent warnings to tens of thousands more about the likely impact on VA services in coming days.

Meteorologists are predicting that the storm, currently a Category 1 hurricane, could grow in power before hitting the western shoreline of Florida, bringing with it damaging winds and rain. Local officials have already closed services temporarily and urged evacuations in the region.

During an appearance at the annual American Legion convention in North Carolina Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough urged veterans in the area to follow the orders of those local leaders and stay in touch with VA in coming days, to ensure their medical care and benefits are not disrupted.

“Our team is working overtime to make sure that all of our vets are taken care of and moved to safer ground,” he said. “Any of our vets who are worried about listening to local authorities and leaving their homes, rest assured that your VA benefits will travel with you.”

Department officials in Florida announced that VA clinics in Bradenton, North Pinellas, Sarasota and St. Petersburg are closed until at least Thursday at noon. The C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Bay Pines will be closed until Friday.

McDonough said a number of patients at the Bay Pines hospital have been moved to other locations in the state to ensure that power outages and other potential threats do not disrupt their care.

In addition, department leaders have reached out to more than 650,000 veterans in the coastline region with information on prescription rules, emergency outreach assistance and other VA services they may need.

Local VA leaders on Tuesday activated the department’s Emergency Prescription Refill Program for veterans enrolled in the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, and the Miami VA Healthcare System.

That means that patients can go to any local retail pharmacy — not just VA sites — to obtain needed refills. Veterans must bring with them an empty active VA prescription bottle (not older than 6 months and with refills available) or a new prescription on a VA form to obtain the medication.

McDonough said officials are not currently moving any mobile health assets to the region for storm response, but “we’ll be ready to move whatever resources we need there when the time comes.”

Veterans with questions about specific site access and availability can visit the department’s regional page for more information. Around-the-clock virtual urgent care is also available for the region by calling 877-741-3400.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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