United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Patient Advocates Work to Resolve Problems
Disabled Veteran skiing on snow covered mountain
Eddie Dusick says that “skiing is my freedom.”

Eddie Dusick is a 100% disabled Veteran, and he had a problem with some of the arrangements for Vets who attend special events, like the 2010 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic last April in Colorado.

So, he went to see Bernadette Kern, a patient advocate at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven.

She listened and then worked with VA program offices to address his concerns and arranged meetings to discuss possible changes in the program.

Kern is one of almost 300 patient advocates working in VA Medical Centers across the country. In addition to providing a listening ear, patient advocates help Veterans navigate the system to ensure they receive the highest level of service and the best care.

Laura Krejci agrees. She is the Interim Director of National Veterans Service and Patient Advocacy. “VA patient advocates play a crucial role in assuring Veteran needs are met. Bernadette solves problems as they arise, but she also works with medical center leadership and staff to identify and resolve systems issues to enhance care and services for Veterans,” Krejci explains.

For Dusick, Kern’s assistance was valuable in a very special way. She understood what the sports clinic meant to him when he told her, “The wheelchair is my life, but skiing is my freedom.”

Krejci offers other examples of the helpful role performed by patient advocates. In one case, the father of an injured Veteran called from out of state because his son had been injured in a car accident and was being treated in a private hospital. He was hopeful that his son could transfer to the VA Hospital for care and rehabilitation related to a traumatic brain injury.

Krejci consulted with leaders at VA Medical Centers within the state to see who could provide the best care for this Veteran in his current condition.

Once a facility confirmed they could provide the care to the Veteran, the medical center worked with the private facility to arrange for the transfer. Krejci maintained close contact with the Veteran’s family to ensure they were aware of each step in the process and so they could accompany him when the transfer was made.

Woman and veteran review his paperwork at VA hospital
Bernadette Kern, VA patient advocate, assists Veteran Michael Preuss with paperwork at VA medical center in West Haven, Conn.

Another example of a patient advocate providing assistance occurred when a Vietnam-era Veteran contacted Krejci seeking help accessing VA care. He said that he had been isolated for many years, but that he was now ready to begin dealing with his medical and mental health issues.

Krejci worked with a team at the local medical center to ensure this process went smoothly for him. She facilitated his connection with a primary care team and a patient advocate who could work with him individually as he enrolled for care and scheduled appointments.

The Veteran called back two months later to report that he was very pleased with his care and appreciative of his provider, his patient advocate and everyone who had assisted with his care.

VA patient advocates work with Veterans and their family and friends to assist them with the nuts-and-bolts of navigating VA’s system. This could include issues ranging from applications for Veteran Benefits, to making medical appointments, to clarifying issues related to Patient Rights and Responsibilities, and everything in between.

Patient advocates usually have their photos, names and phone numbers posted in prominent locations around the medical centers to make sure Veterans know they are there and ready to help.

Kern describes the satisfaction she receives from helping Veterans: “Serving as a Patient Advocate allows me to touch the lives of many people. My position allows me to have the daily opportunities to impact the experience of Veterans, family members and visitors that use our medical center.

“In addition to daily patient contact, addressing concerns and questions, providing education, or accepting staff compliments, patient advocates have the ability to question, and to request and effect positive change at our medical centers.”

While Kern and Dusick, the Sports Clinic participant, were working through his original problem, she noticed that this Veteran had many great ideas about changes that could be made at VA. They agreed to meet monthly and explore some of his suggestions.

As a result of that original meeting, and thanks to one of Dusick’s great ideas, the VA Medical Center is currently in the process of replacing the hospital’s older, generic artwork with enlarged photos of Connecticut Veterans participating in a variety of sporting events, including the Winter Sports Clinic. They call the project “Veterans in Action.”

Kern’s love for Veterans is personal. Her father was in the Normandy invasion and died at age 68 with shrapnel in his face and leg. Her uncles were also Veterans, one was a prisoner of war and another was a paratrooper in World War II. Her sister was in the Air Force and two of her nephews are currently serving in Special Operations in the Army.

She can be emotional when working with Veterans. As Dusick revealed, “When I showed her some of the photos of these disabled guys and gals (the other athletes), she had tears in her eyes.”

Reflecting on her job, she says, “Being a patient advocate is a great gift. We have the opportunity to help Veterans daily. We know their names, see their faces and know their wounds, physical and mental. What an opportunity we have as advocates to thank Veterans and to ensure that every interaction is evidence that we appreciate their past and present commitment to Americans through their service.”

A philosophy that Dusick appreciates and acknowledges, “When things go wrong at the VA, with your health care or other issues, you always have a friend in the patient advocate’s office that will help you.”

By Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer