Baligh Yehia, MD, the VA’s assistant deputy under secretary, addresses DOs at an OMED town hall meeting on Monday
Caring for veterans

VA leader: DOs ‘perfectly positioned’ to help veterans

Baligh Yehia, MD, explained how DOs inside and outside the VA can make a difference for veterans.

If you’re a DO, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has an important message for you. At OMED 2016, it was delivered by Baligh Yehia, MD, the VA’s assistant deputy under secretary, who spoke to DOs during a town hall meeting on Monday.

“The VA is working to strengthen partnerships with physicians in community-based settings across the country, and DO physicians are perfectly positioned to help,” Dr. Yehia said. “We’re taking a whole-person approach to patient care that resonates a lot with the osteopathic philosophy—there’s definitely a home for the DO community within the VA.”

How to help

Dr. Yehia and a panel of DO physicians highlighted ways in which DOs, residents and osteopathic medical students can provide care for veterans. These include:

  • Practicing within the VA system. Family medicine physician Paul Moga, DO, PhD, practices at the VA in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “DOs are well-positioned to address veterans’ needs, because we look at the whole person—mind, body and spirit,” he said. “From my 10 years at the VA, the mind and the spirit are very important components in working with the veteran population.”
  • Working with veterans while you’re in training. In Lebanon, Oregon, osteopathic medical students at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest assist with chronic care at the local VA—which is conveniently located on a shared campus with the medical school. Michael Finley, DO, the school’s associate dean for graduate medical education, noted that the school has also established more than 100 residencies in the community.
  • Filling the VA’s graduate medical education slots. “The VA has a huge opportunity in this area because Congress offered us funding for up to 1,500 GME spots,” Dr. Yehia noted. “For institutions that are interested in starting a residency program this year, especially in primary care, mental health or rural medicine, we’re looking to partner with you.”
  • Caring for veterans outside the VA through partnerships such as the Veterans Choice Program. Family medicine physician Katarina Lindley, DO, oversees six clinics in a rural part of Texas with a large veteran population. “You have to be passionate about it, because the billing side can be challenging,” she said. “But veterans appreciate being able to see a doctor in their community, especially since their family members may be seeing you too.”

Physician concerns

In a Q&A session following the panel discussion, osteopathic physicians shared the following concerns:

  • Billing processes and authorization can be cumbersome for physicians who treat veterans outside the VA system. That’s true, Dr. Yehia acknowledged, since VA partnerships are split among several programs with differing eligibility criteria, referral processes and reimbursement rates. But it’s an area the VA is working to improve, he said: “It does our veterans and our community doctors a disservice to have all these different programs.”
  • Some physicians within the VA wonder if the system will be privatized entirely; Dr. Yehia indicated it will not. “Veterans and American medicine need the VA,” he said. “There are certain things the VA is a little better-positioned to do, such as integrating mental health and primary care, and VA physicians become experts in conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder that are more prevalent in the veteran population.”

Whatever the avenue, caring for veterans is a richly rewarding endeavor, Dr. Moga said. “I left the VA for a while, but I missed the veterans,” he said. “When they’re together, the support they give each other is unlike anything else I’ve seen in practice.”

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