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Committee meetings a fertile place for ideas

Caleb S. Cage

Last week I participated once again in a meeting of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health Advisory Committee. The VA has 24 of these advisory committees, advising the department on subjects from its cemetery system to its health services for elderly veterans. In recent years it has worked to bring more state directors into its ranks. I have been proud to serve on this committee since fall.

The VA’s Office of Rural Health is a relatively small and new office in the department that falls under the Veterans Health Administration. Its mission is “to improve access and quality of care for enrolled rural and highly rural veterans by developing evidence-based policies and innovative practices to support the unique needs of enrolled veterans residing in geographically remote areas.” It has done so in numerous ways in Nevada, including the recent launch of the veterans telehealth capabilities in Elko. The advisory committee consists of 15 members and is tasked with exploring opportunities to improve health care services for veterans in rural areas.

Beyond advising this important VA office, participation on this committee provides for numerous other opportunities. Along with two other state directors of the Office of Veterans Services who also serve on the committee, I am able to bring the state perspective to these federal programs. We are able to talk with VA leaders about how our constituents view their programs, how their services might improve, and how we might be able to assist with both at the state level. We also can advocate for new federal resources for our states.

One such opportunity that has come out of these meetings is the Veterans Database program. The state veterans office in Utah ran a pilot program several years ago in which it pulled together existing veteran information from state agencies in order to better understand the distribution of veterans in that state, to better communicate with the veteran population regarding opportunities that might be available to them, and to otherwise challenge the federal census data that has been remarkably inaccurate for a number of reasons.

Through financial and technical support provided by the Office of Rural Health, Utah was able to stand up such a system, and Nevada is next in line to receive the same support. We have legislation in this session that will allow us to do so, and we have secured money to ensure implementation.

Beyond specific opportunities like these, we also get a chance to hear from federal agencies that have partnerships in our state. Through these briefings, we learned that the federal VA is planning to bring a rural clergy-training program to Nevada in 2014, which is exciting and should be very effective given our efforts through the Green Zone Initiative. We also learned about state level farming initiatives for veterans, the state Extension Program that supports veterans, military members, and their families, and other opportunities provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Our advisory committee meetings are always informative, but they also give the directors of state offices an opportunity to meet with leaders, discuss challenges facing each state, and seek better ways to collaborate end enhance services. This recent meeting provided ample opportunity for all of the above. I look forward to our next meeting this fall, when we will bring the committee out West and finalize our recommendations to Secretary Eric Shinseki for this year.

Caleb S. Cage is the executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services, appointed by Governor Brian Sandoval. You can read his blog at http://veterans.nv.gov/blog.