Grand Junction's Veterans Affairs Medical Center is preparing to hear from more veterans curious about the Mission Act, which goes into effect Thursday and is ready to educate vets in the community.

The act, which was signed by President Donald Trump last year, aims to improve health care access to veterans who seek service outside of the Veterans Affairs system. It also consolidates several programs.

The Grand Junction VA has a call center ready for veterans who are looking for help with the Mission Act.

For information, visit missionact.va.gov or call 263-2800.

Grand Junction Mission Act champion and Director of Clinical Operations Yvette Poitras expects to see a 20 percent increase in call volume, and the hospital is hiring four people to handle the calls.

A big item included in the Mission Act is free access to an urgent care facility when a veteran can't get in to see a primary care doctor or if a small injury or illness occurs after hours. The idea is to keep veterans out of the emergency department when possible.

"It's better access to care," Poitras said. "This should open up availability for those needing urgent care."

To qualify to go to an in-network urgent care site, a veteran must have been seen at the VA within the past 24 months. If they qualify, many veterans will not have to pay a co-pay for their first three urgent care visits in a calendar year.

After the three visits, there is a $30 co-pay for subsequent trips.

Veterans can also use their benefits to access care outside of the VA if the hospital does not offer a service they need or if care is not readily available.

If a primary care doctor can not be seen within 20 days or a specialty doctor is not available within 28 days at the VA, the veteran can opt to see a different doctor.

Poitras noted that the wait times for care at the VA in Grand Junction are generally less than in the community at large, and 85 percent of veterans can get in to see a primary care doctor within the 20-day window.

Veterans with a drive time of more than 30 minutes for primary care and more than 60 minutes for specialty care can also opt to see a doctor closer to home, but they will still need a referral from the VA.

Poitras said 58 percent of Grand Junction VA patients live outside of that 30-minute drive zone.

Grand Junction VA Community Care Representative Jason Moore said one of his main goals is to clear up any misconceptions regarding the Mission Act.

He said when the Choice Act — which is being replaced by the Mission Act — came online in 2014, many veterans thought their Choice card served as an insurance card outside of the VA and were surprised when they received a bill after not being referred by a doctor.

"They need a referral from the VA or they'll have to pay," Moore said.

The Grand Junction VA has tested many of the new services, and Moore said not much will change for the Grand Junction VA as far as services go.

Most veterans are familiar with the Choice program, but for veterans just getting out of their service, there may be a learning curve.

"The biggest impact will be for vets getting out now who don't know," Moore said.

Kent Hess, community outreach officer for the Colorado Mesa University Student Veterans Association, said the Mission Act will allow him to have concrete answers to provide to veterans with questions.

"That will provide me with an opportunity to have solid answers for them," Hess said.

Hess, a veteran of the Marine Corps, said he's been frustrated with some issues surrounding his care and is glad to see things cleared up.

He also feels the urgent care portion of the act is a big benefit.

"For me, I'm excited that if I need services, I won't have to wait for such an extended amount of time," Hess said. "I think it will have a big impact for a lot of vets in the community.

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