Vets shouldn’t be told ‘no’

New VA chief aims to help a larger pool

Michael T. Kilmer, the new director of the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center, has been on the job for six weeks. His priorities are to improve care for existing patients and expand care for the roughly two-thirds of veterans in the 17-county area who are not enrolled.

If he had the tools at his command when his stepfather was ill that he has now, his stepfather would likely still be alive, said Michael T. Kilmer, the new director of the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

His stepfather, a U.S. Army Korean War veteran, had lost his records and the official ones were destroyed in a fire, so it wasn’t until after his stepfather’s death that Kilmer learned of his three Bronze Star medals.

With that knowledge, gained with the help of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he was able to help his mother receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Kilmer said.

That experience sums up the kind of experience that Kilmer said he wants western Colorado veterans to have — and the ones he wants them not to have.

Veterans shouldn’t be told “no” when they enter the VA system, he said.

“Even if there is nothing we can do, we can find that golden nugget of assistance” that can help a veteran or family member with a problem, Kilmer said in an interview last week.

Kilmer, a Coast Guard veteran, is about six weeks into his tenure as director of the Grand Junction VA, which serves 17 counties in three states that have about 15,000 veterans enrolled for services. About 42,000 veterans live in its service area. Anywhere from 185 to 300 veterans walk through the doors of his medical center every day.

That discrepancy — 15,000 enrolled patients, and a pool of local veterans more than twice that — is one of the matters Kilmer hopes to tackle in a way that sounds much like a private-sector hospital head.

He wants a market study to better understand his patient base, not just to meet that need, but to work better with VA medical centers in Albuquerque, Denver and Salt Lake City, Kilmer said.

“We need to look beyond Grand Junction and the Western Slope,” Kilmer said.

At the same time, he also wants to better understand the needs of the patients who already are coming in the doors.

One thing is for certain, veterans are aging, and in need of treatment such as joint replacements.

“So we’re getting the staff to do that,” he said.

Kilmer also is preparing his staff to work more cooperatively with other hospitals in the region to determine areas in which they can cooperate to provide veterans with services in a “better, faster, cheaper” fashion, he said.

Kilmer has worked 13 years for the VA, including an assignment in Washington, D.C., as chief consultant for care management and social work.

He also was the principal adviser on professional case management and social work practice, representing more than 12,000 professional staff nationwide.

He has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington in Seattle and was the inaugural recipient of the School of Social Work’s Distinguished Alumni — Early Career Achievement Award in 2014.

Under federal legislation that requires the VA to work with private providers to handle services that it can’t offer, it only makes sense to work with other hospitals and providers to learn where they can cooperate for better service, Kilmer said.

Veterans, he said, don’t return to the VA.

“They return to the communities that we’re a part of.”


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