Veterans living in rural parts of Somerset County rely on the Veterans Choice Program at Somerset Hospital to get the medical treatment they need.
Tom Joyce, a Vietnam War veteran, is in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices.
“I had my neck, my back, my leg. Back again for my arm, back again for my leg and my back,” said Joyce, a retired U.S. Army veteran of the 101st Airborne Division.
Larry Mazer, another Vietnam War veteran, took a bad fall and now attends physical therapy three times a week. Mazer isn’t new to rehab: he had to do physical therapy after a back surgery and a hip replacement.
“I had to do like three sessions of therapy,” said Mazer, ret. U.S. Army Helicopter Crew Chief.
The Veterans Choice Program at Somerset Hospital allows Mazer and Joyce to get medical treatment without driving hours to VAs in Altoona, Johnstown or Pittsburgh.
Mazer said he would have had to drive nearly 4 hours round-trip from Rockwood to the Altoona VA for physical therapy.
“That would have been for me a little bit costly and a little bit time consuming,” Mazer said.
Veterans can qualify for the program if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or would have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.
“A lot of veterans won’t get the care they need simply because they don’t have transportation,” said Amber Cross, the Somerset Hospital patient care liaison.
Somerset Hospital adopted the program two years ago. They’ve treated more than 400 patients and are expanding their in-patient behavioral health care services.
Funding for the national program was set to run out in January, but the White House administration promised more than $2 billion to relieve the VA system.
“So many veterans use the VA system and it gets bottlenecked because there aren’t enough providers to meet the need of veterans,” Cross said.
Joyce said veterans deserve to choose when – and where – they get health care.
“We fought for this freedom we have, we suffer from this freedom that we have. That’s why we’re in the health system. If [the VA] do[es]n’t provide the service, you have every right and opportunity to go through the choice program,” said Joyce.