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Haywood welcomes off-site veterans’ health services

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will establish a local field office in Haywood County where veterans who are new to the system can register and qualify for medical benefits in a more expedited fashion.

The nearest places in Western North Carolina for veterans to get their initial exams and register for VA medical benefits is on the eastern side of Asheville or in Franklin. But for many, the journey to the Charles George VA Medical Center or the VA medical clinic in Franklin takes 45 minutes to more than an hour one-way — not to mention the two to three months it can take to even get an appointment. During that time, a veteran could be without the necessary medical treatments they need.

“How is that helping them?” asked Brandon Wilson, the veterans’ services officer for Haywood County. The sooner veterans are admitted into the VA system, the quicker they can get help for what ails them.

Wilson spoke to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners Monday about approving a memorandum of understanding — a document that is more than a handshake, but less than a legal contract — to allow the VA to use space in the county health department as a field site for conducting initial medical assessments for veterans hoping to register for VA benefits.

“The reason we are doing this is to expedite enrollment,” Wilson said, adding that its Haywood operation will improve access to aid for veterans.

The measure passed unanimously, making Haywood County the first place in the country to have such an agreement with the VA.

“This really is a service to our veterans. It is a lengthy trip to go to Asheville,” said Haywood County Commissioner Mike Sorrells.

The initiative could help thousands of veterans, not just in Haywood County but in other counties west of Asheville as well. Wilson stated it can only benefit the county. The VA will fund and run the program itself, and the county may even be eligible for additional grant funding because of the agreement.

“It’s costing the taxpayers of Haywood County nothing,” Wilson said.

The VA will not have permanent operations in the county health department, but a physician will travel from Asheville to Haywood County once a month to conduct head-to-toe physicals, health interviews and blood work necessary to sign-up for health care and benefits through the federally run veterans’ program. What currently takes two to three months could take only two or three weeks, Wilson said.

Veterans will be seen at the Haywood County health department by appointment only. Although the scope of the agreement only allows the VA to use space in the health department for the initial exams, the VA could expand its services pending the popularity and success of the initiative.

The VA could hold appointments up to three days a month in the health department. Representatives from the VA also stated that it could offer information sessions or consultations with specialists via videoconference for veterans who can’t make it to Asheville.

“I anticipate we will add additional services, like flu clinics or smoking cessation classes, over the next few years. This will save our veterans a lot of time and travel,” Wilson said. or 828.452.6634.

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