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Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Holiday lights go high-tech

in News/Community/military
Christmas Lights
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

No one really can remember when the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center, built in 1934, began displaying its impressive holiday lights and decorations. It’s just been something Cheyenne and Laramie County residents, as well as regular tourists, expect every winter. 

Whether you’re driving by on Pershing Boulevard and just happen to catch a glimpse of the lights or you take a stroll through the campus, you can see the VA’s extensive collection of decorations, from Santa guiding his reindeer to a nutcracker saluting incoming and outgoing guests. 

For many years, the decorative display was unique in Cheyenne because it was considered more “high-tech” than displays seen across the rest of the city. In recent years, the community has begun to step up the size and scale of its decorations and lights, but that doesn’t mean that the VA is going to fall behind. 

“The grounds guys actually came to me this year and were pretty insistent that we needed to get some more lights and decorations for the display,” said Sam House, VA public affairs officer. “We’ve built new additions along the campus, but we hadn’t expanded our holiday display and they wanted to change that.” 

Some of the new decorations included inflatable characters that are shown every evening — as long as it’s not too windy — more lights, a new wreath and pop-up sculptures. 

Since the VA is a federal building, the decorations also reflect the Jewish and Muslim faiths, featuring a menorah for Hanukkah and a painted sign with Islam’s crested moon symbol. 

While not decorated, there is also a sacred area on the property for Native Americans that features a traditional medicine wheel that people can visit.

Since the VA expanded its decorations for the entire campus, House noted that there has been an uptick in visitors this winter. 

“We put those there for the community, so we definitely want them to come onto the campus and take a look around,” he said. “They’re also great for the veterans who stay in our nursing homes, because they love to look out their windows and see these gorgeous lights.” 

The groundkeepers begin looking over the lights and decorations in early November, ensuring none of the lights are broken or burned out and checking to see if any decorations need repair. After Thanksgiving, they get to work setting everything up, stringing lights and posting the decorations all over the campus. 

It’s a lot of work for a display that’s seen for a little more than a month, but House said it’s worth it because the community loves it so much. 

“Cheyenne is a very traditional community and these decorations are a part of our tradition,” he said. “There are so many federal entities that kind of peel away and don’t take part in their community. The Cheyenne VA has been an integral part of the city since the 1930s. Some of our patients were mayors of the community. We want to make sure people know it’s OK to come onto the campus and that our VA hospital belongs to the community.”

But the VA isn’t the only place you can see beautiful lights or stunning decorations. Little America is another location with a sprawling campus with a breathtaking display that guests or community members can walk through.

Cheyenne’s City Hall on O’Neil Avenue is covered with around 3,000 LED lights, with more being added every year. The building is decorated on Thanksgiving and the lights will come down in January. 

There are also lights displayed along the streets downtown, which are put up by the city’s traffic division. These will also be up until January. 

The Cheyenne Community Recreation and Events Department also placed more than 70,000 lights on the Cheyenne Depot Plaza this fall. The white lights that hang on the trees downtown will stay up until April 1. 

But if you’re looking for some more home-spun decorations and lights, the Cheyenne Trolley Tours offers the chance to bundle up in one of the city’s classic trolleys, sip hot chocolate and cruise the streets in search of the best Christmas displays at private homes throughout town. 

The buses depart every evening from the west end of Frontier Mall, 1400 Frontier Mall Drive., at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children.

VA to implement Mission Act, cutting wait times, enhancing healthcare programs

in Health care/military
File photo
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A congressional act going into effect June 6 could make it easier for Wyoming veterans to access the health care providers of their choice. The Mission Act will replace the Choice Act of 2014, which was adopted as the congressional response to extreme wait times experienced by veterans seeking medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The Choice Act was a three-year law, which was intended solely for the purposes of pulling the VA into a newer era of community care,” said Sam House, a Cheyenne VA Medical Center spokesperson. “Then, President (Donald) Trump extended it for a year. The Mission Act, however, does not have a sunset, so it will be in place until Congress decides to remove it.”

With the Choice Act, veterans could seek primary and mental health care services from a local health care provider rather than from a VA facility if they lived outside a 40-mile radius of a VA medical center or could not schedule an appointment with their primary care provider at the VA within 30 days.

The Mission Act reduces those standards to a wait time of 20 or more days or a drive time of more than 30 minutes.

“They are not using specific matrix to look at drive times, but rather looking at the average drive time and taking into account heavy traffic periods,” House explained. “A guy living in Denver could live 5 miles from the VA, but it might take him 45 minutes to get there.”

For specialized care, the new act reduces the veterans’ wait time to be eligible for services at non-VA facilities from 30 days to 28 and changes the 60-mile radius requirement to a 60-minute radius.

“Congress is focusing on ensuring our vets are getting the best possible care as quickly as they need it,” House said.

Enhancing programs

In addition to easing access requirements, the Mission Act seeks to improve services already in place such as tele-health options, caregiver programs and VA infrastructure.

“The Mission Act streamlines and improves community care,” House said. “It establishes a new urgent care benefit for our veterans, and it expands caregiver eligibility.”

When the Choice Act was implemented, veterans were given the opportunity to seek healthcare providers outside VA facilities, which is referred to as community care, he said.

The VA’s internal software, however, did not communicate with the myriad programs used by health care providers outside its facilities. Simple tasks such as transferring medical records and authorizing payments required mountains of paperwork as well as numerous case-worker hours, House explained. The Mission Act seeks to streamline the process through installing new software, HealthShare Referral Manager (HSRM).

“HSRM is an end-to-end healthcare referral system,” said Josh Benavente, Cheyenne VA Community Care supervisor. “That’s where the VA will build our authorizations for payments and providers can submit medical records.”

The new system goes live in June.

“The biggest problem it’s fixing is previously we were relying on too many outdated programs to get information to and from community providers,” Benavente said. “It allows the VA to communicate with community providers faster and easier.”

Eligibility for the VA’s caregiver program is also slated to expand to include veterans from all eras of service. The expansion is scheduled to roll out during the next two years, starting with veterans who were injured on or before May 7, 1975.

On the tele-health front, the act could facilitate community partnerships in rural areas to increase long-range, video and phone healthcare-conferencing accessibility, House said.  

“What the Mission Act will do is strengthen our ability and reason for going into communities to establish a centralized tele-health port,” he explained. “We have a number of veterans that don’t have internet capability, but they want to stay with the VA and can’t make the trip to the Cheyenne VA every time.”

One such program could soon provide veterans living near Saratoga an opportunity to use equipment at the Saratoga Care Center to access Cheyenne VA tele-health programs, House added.

Bureaucracy

As June 6 rounds the corner, House said the VA is racing to ensure the transition is smooth. 

“It’s been a mad rush for all of the VA to be trained by June 6,” he said. “There are so many pieces and parts to the act.”

Despite more programs and enhanced services, House said the act will not likely lead to an increase of staffing at the Cheyenne VA.

Cowboy State Daily talked to several veterans who were unaware of the changes coming to the VA, but most said they would like the Mission Act to make it easier for veterans living in rural Wyoming to enter the community care program.

“The Choice Program didn’t work too well because of all the bureaucracy,” said John Hursh, a Laramie resident and former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. “So, I’m hoping the Mission Act can fix some of that.”

Cheyenne VA services remain intact a year after administrative downgrade

in News/Health care/military
Cheyenne VA services remain intact a year after administrative downgrade
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Services at the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center remain largely intact a year after the Department of Veteran Affairs downgraded an administrative ranking for the facility, a VA spokesperson said.

“Our lower complexity level has not affected the quality or services we provide,” said Sam House, the Cheyenne VA public affairs officer. “It didn’t affect our funding. The only thing it did was should we get a new director, they would be hired at a lower pay rate.”

According to the department, VA facilities are categorized by “complexity levels,” which are determined by characteristics of the patient population, clinical services offered, educational and research initiatives and administrative complexity. 

“It’s a system of looking at hospitals, and what they are capable of doing,” House explained. “They assign numbers to them, and they base the hospital director’s pay off that number. That’s all the complexity level means.”

The complexity system consists of three levels with level one and its subcategories being the highest and level three being the lowest. The Cheyenne VA, with a budget of $185 million in 2018, was downgraded from level two to level three early in 2018, which House said signifies no research is being conducted at the facility.

“We don’t have a focus on research,” he added. “Our focus is on mental health, primary care and geriatric care.”

House said one service was changed by the downgrade — orthopedic repairs. While the facility still provides othorpedic surgery, its staff no longer repairs orthopedic implants.

Wyoming Veterans Commission Director Steve Kravitsky said he was initially alarmed when he heard about the downgrade, but his fears were allayed after talking to Cheyenne VA Director Paul Roberts.

“(Roberts) assured me not only were they not going to decrease any services, but they were still bringing more services online,” Kravitsky said. “As director of the veterans commission and a veteran myself, I receive care at the VA, and I haven’t seen anything to the contrary.”

Built in 1934, the Cheyenne VA originally employed 100 staff members and provided 100 beds for primary care.

Nowadays, the facility’s area of service, also known as a “catchment” area, stretches from Rawlins to Sydney, Nebraska, and from Douglas down to north of Denver.

About 79,000 eligible veterans live in the catchment area, House said, but only 29,000 used the facility’s services in 2018, a 3 percent reduction from 2017.

House explained that the VA is made up of three entitles to administer three areas: Healthcare, benefits and the national cemetery.

Most of the services offered at the Cheyenne VA are centered around primary healthcare, but all three divisions of the department have offices on the grounds. 

“Recently, we’ve expanded our nursing home and hospice care facility,” House said. “The average age of Cheyenne VA users is 61. Our youngest user is 19, and our oldest is 102.”

A large portion of the facility is dedicated to offering primary care, including physical therapy, orthopedic surgery, cardiopulmonary lab work, audiology and otorhinolaryngology, or ear, nose and throat care.

The Cheyenne VA also provides some emergency services through its emergency room.

“Our ER is open and staffed 24/7, 365,” House said. “But we’re not a trauma center.”

Because of this, ambulances do not deliver patients to the Cheyenne VA, but rather, veterans are transported to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, and the VA reimburses the medical center for the care provided.

“Because we have CRMC, we don’t have a trauma care unit in our ER,” he added. “We are in partnership with our community, not competition.”

Additionally, the facility offers limited dental care and was the first in the region to install a women’s clinic.

“The need for women-specific care is something I think the VA has really realized in the last nine to 10 years,” House said.

Laramie County is home to the largest concentration of veterans in Wyoming, and as such, the Cheyenne VA is well-placed to provide them with vital services, Kravitsky said.

“There are 12,085 vets living in Laramie County, according to the VA,” he said, “which is about 25 percent of the 47,472 living throughout Wyoming.”

Without the Cheyenne VA, veterans would need to travel to Denver or Sheridan for veterans services, Kravitsky added.

“With 20 veterans committing suicide every day, quality care close to home is essential to potentially reducing that number,” he said.

The veterans commission files veteran claims with the VA benefits division and is occasionally charged with reviewing inquiries into the VA’s quality or frequency of care. 

“Those inquiries are infrequent,” Kravitsky said. “We don’t get a lot of negative feedback about the Cheyenne VA.”

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