Weekly Column: Preserving Our Veterans’ Local Access to Health Care

Click HERE for a high resolution photo of Senator Collins showing VA Deputy Secretary Gibson the distance between Northern Maine and Togus

 

At the height of a terrible winter storm in Aroostook County in January 2014, veteran Peter Miesburger suffered a broken hip that required emergency surgery.  Prior to the implementation of a pilot program known as Access Received Closer to Home (ARCH), his injury would have necessitated an eight hour, 500-mile roundtrip drive to the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta.  Instead of enduring this painful and bumpy ride, he was able to receive care at his local hospital, Cary Medical Center in Caribou, through the ARCH program and successfully recuperate closer to his family and friends. 

Peter’s experience is just one example of the countless stories I’ve heard from Maine veterans about the extraordinary success of ARCH in eliminating long and difficult travel, reducing wait times, and providing access to health care in their own communities.  Since 2011, the ARCH program has been operating at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, one of five pilot sites located across the United States.  According to the hospital, ARCH has served approximately 1,600 local veterans through more than 17,000 medical appointments since its inception. 

Preserving this local access to care is one of my top priorities.  The ARCH Program has made such a difference for our veterans in Northern Maine and in the pilot projects in four other states.  More than 90 percent of veterans participating in ARCH are overwhelmingly satisfied with their access to care and the medical services they receive. In addition, according to the VA’s own figures, the average cost per veteran in Maine using the ARCH program is less than the average cost for VHA direct care

Despite this success, the ARCH Program is due to expire on August 7, 2016, and the VA is currently considering a plan to fold ARCH into the Veterans Choice Program, the VA’s new and troubled community care program. While the VA implemented the Veterans Choice Program in an attempt to improve veterans’ access to health care, more than half of eligible Maine veterans have experienced difficulties in receiving care under the Choice Program. 

As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I urged officials from the VA at a subcommittee hearing to extend the ARCH program and ensure that all veterans have the choice of receiving the health care they need close to home and their families.  I stressed to VA Secretary Robert McDonald the vital importance of the ARCH Program to veterans and recommended using it as a model to reform the Choice Program.  I also recently met with VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson in my Washington, D.C., office to emphasize the need to extend the ARCH Program.  I illustrated Peter Miesburger’s story and the experience of hundreds of other Maine veterans by showing Deputy Secretary Gibson a map displaying the distance between Northern Maine and Togus.

In addition, along with Senator King, I recently introduced legislation that will extend the ARCH program for an additional five years.  This would allow veterans in Northern Maine to continue to receive care at Cary Medical Center.  Our legislation would also provide Congress and the VA with additional time to evaluate the success of the ARCH program.

The ARCH program allows Northern Maine veterans to receive exceptionally high quality care close to home, close to their families, and when they need it.  Given the tremendous success of ARCH measured in terms of both patient satisfaction and cost effectiveness, I will continue to advocate for the extension of this essential program to ensure that our rural veterans have local access to the health care they have earned through their service to our nation.