Uvalde Info Fair: Serving rural Veterans - South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)
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Uvalde Info Fair: Serving rural Veterans

A woman is helping two men who are sitting at her work station

Joanna Sierra, an enrollment & eligibility supervisor, helps a couple of Veterans who had questions during the Uvalde Veterans Information Fair July 29.

By Steven Goetsch
Thursday, August 5, 2021

A non-descript building, 85 miles west of San Antonio is the home of the American Legion Post 479 and was also host to the Uvalde Veterans Information Fair held July 29, in Uvalde, Texas.

The South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS) sent a caravan of services like transportation, women’s and mental health, enrollment and eligibility, MyHealtheVet, National Cemetery Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration and many more to deliver Veteran services to their backyard.

It is an effort to improve the Veteran Experience for Texas rural Veterans by bringing much needed information, and even more needed face-to-face interactions which have been on a long hiatus since the COVID outbreak.

“I am glad we conduct outreach because Veterans feel more comfortable when they receive the one-on-one care,” said Joanna Sierra, an enrollment & eligibility supervisor at the South Texas VA.

She realized the benefits of face-to-face contact immediately. Two Military Sexual Trauma (MST) victims opened up to her and broke down at the table when she asked how the VA was meeting their mental health needs.

Sierra contacted the MST coordinator who reached out to the Veterans right away to discuss treatment plans so they could begin their healing journeys.

A woman is bending over and speaking to a Veteran about his healthcare question

Mary Rodriguez, a South Texas Veterans Health Care System patient advocate, speaks with Korean War Veteran Richard Cuellar. Cuellar came to the July 29 information fair because he was having issues with his prescriptions.

Another rural Veteran, 87-year-old Richard Cuellar, a Veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars brought himself to the information fair because he was having issues with his medications.

“My provider [Dr, Michelle Conde] takes good care of me,” Cuellar said. He couldn’t get a hold of her to straighten out his medications because she was sick.

He said she has been treating him for a while and knows more about him than he knows about himself.

Patient Advocate Darnetta Brown, researched through the patient database and found out the scripts just needed to be reordered. A quick phone call to a provider and pharmacy and the scripts were set to be delivered in a few business days, pleasing Cuellar.

The 82nd Airborne Vet shared his stories and concerns with the advocates and left with a mug, an updated prescription order and of course a big smile.

Although he likes his health care, he said one of his biggest challenges being a rural Veteran is transportation. Besides the cost, the transportation van leaves at 3 a.m. and that is too difficult for him to manage.

Navy Veteran Angelina Moore said her biggest challenge is being too far from the information.

She came hoping to find answers to several questions she had about her care and services. “I think the toughest thing about living in a rural community as a Veteran is not knowing who to talk to, and where to go for help,” Moore said.

Cuellar and Moore were part of a steady flow of Veterans coming in and utilizing the variety of services available, but a couple of historical favorites like enrollment and eligibility and Veterans benefits had lines forming at their tables.

A man is sitting at a table, working at a computer assisting two Veterans

MyHealtheVet Coordinator Craig Rickaway, assists a Veteran and his spouse with signing up for a MyHealtheVet account. An account lets Veterans speak securely with their providers.

The information fair wasn’t attended exclusively by Veterans. Civilian healthcare agencies stopped in to learn more about VA services and family members looking to be caregivers queried staff on what their first steps should be.

“If I need help with something, I have to go all the way to the VA hospital, because that is where my insurance is and that is where I am covered,” Moore said.

Moore was excited about the opportunity to meet VA staff and tried recruiting every Vet she saw on the street. Even one elderly Veteran who is a family friend. “My neighbor, he is old, and since I’m computer savvy, I give him printouts, called him, and even knocked on his door,” Moore said.

Moore saw the number of services that were attending and figured she could get some of her issues resolved. “I came here and totally took care of everything that was in my brain,” Moore said.

Some of the issues that Moore and Cuellar were having is why Congress established the Office of Rural Health in 2006. They look at the problems these Veterans experience and use it to develop new care models.

Moore added that she just doesn’t want to go all the way to San Antonio for some of the smaller stuff because she already goes a couple times a week for bloodwork. She was happy with the fair because she normally doesn’t have anyone local to talk to.

Sierra became that person to talk to and found the outreach very beneficial. “A few Veterans didn’t think the VA provided medical care, they thought it was strictly administrative,” Sierra said. She received all kinds of questions and found out there were many misconceptions about the VA.

“Female Veterans did not realize they were eligible for Military Sexual Trauma care, while other Veterans thought getting VA care would interfere with their private insurance,” Sierra said.

Moore alluded to the reason the VA wants to reach out to those rural areas of America. “We have a lot of Veterans out here. I literally had 25 students in my class that all joined the military,” Moore said. Many return to their hometowns after service.

These 25 new Veterans in Uvalde are a small fraction of the 5 million Veterans who reside in rural communities.

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