Durham County

Durham VA streamlines its cancer care by letting patients skip some appointment steps

The Durham Veterans Administration hospital facility.
The Durham Veterans Administration hospital facility. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The Durham VA hospital is piloting a program that allows eligible veterans with active cancer to schedule oncology appointments without first having to get a referral from a primary care provider.

The program was launched late last year to try to get veterans the care they need faster.

Already, the program “is improving timeliness for veterans accessing specialty services,” Dr. Susan Kirsh, the VA’s national clinical director for practice management and access, said in a release Tuesday. “I am excited to see sites ... getting rid of unnecessary consults and helping veterans get the care they need.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is the nation’s largest integrative health care system, with more than 1,900 medical facilities across the country. While it generally gets good ratings for care, it has been criticized for years for how long it takes veterans to be deemed eligible and then to get the appointments they need.

To try and speed the process, the VA in recent years has hired more doctors and paid for some veterans to see private physicians in their communities. It also began testing direct-referring in 2015, allowing veterans to make appointments for routine eye and ear care. In 2016 it put that program in place at all VA medical centers.

The Durham VA serves nearly 70,000 veterans through the medical center, the Greenville Health Care Center and outpatient clinics in Raleigh, Durham and Morehead City.

Previously, getting in to see a VA oncologist required multiple phone calls with different offices, followed by an appointment with a primary care provider to receive a referral. Allowing direct referrals can cut weeks from the time it takes veterans to be seen by the appropriate medical professionals, the VA has said.

Triangle-area veterans with active cancer who are not yet enrolled in VA can call 1-833-309-1349 to find out if they are eligible for VA health care benefits and to make an appointment to see a cancer specialist.

Currently, the self-referral scheduling process is available only at select VA facilities. If successful, it may roll out nationwide and branch out to other medical specialties.

For more information, please contact 919-286-0411, extensions 7213 or 7801.

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin