CVS MinuteClinics to relieve stress on Phoenix VA, open doors to many veterans in Arizona

Veterans in the Phoenix VA Health Care System can now get immediate medical treatment for minor illnesses and injuries from CVS MinuteClinics under a pilot project announced Tuesday.

The program will be open to about 120,000 veterans, enabling them to call VA triage nurses and, if their symptoms qualify, receive an appointment within two hours at one of the drugstore chain’s 24 clinic outlets in central Arizona. Medical care at those locations is provided by nurse practitioners.

During a news conference at a CVS Health store in Tempe, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., touted the program as an efficient way to reduce stress on VA facilities while providing fast, convenient care for veterans. “This partnership shows we are seeking improvements at Phoenix VA, and seeing improvements at Phoenix VA,” McCain said. “It will serve as a model for the nation.”

The VA’s national wait-time scandal erupted in April 2014 when a congressional committee disclosed that VA hospital patients in Phoenix may have died while awaiting medical care.

Although MinuteClinics are open evenings and weekends, the VA triage number will operate only from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. weekdays during the program’s opening phase. Veterans needing minor treatment at those times may call VA nurses at 602-222-6550, 602-277-5551 or 800-554-7174.

Those with minor injuries or symptoms for illnesses such as bronchitis, flu, strep throat, bladder infection and ear aches will be given care options, including an appointment at the nearest MinuteClinic or a walk-in visit to VA facilities. Patients calling in with more severe symptoms — such as chest pain, respiratory distress or extremely high temperature — will not be eligible for MinuteClinic care.

Medical bills at the MinuteClinics will be covered by the VA through the Choice Program, a funding measure passed two years ago amid a nationwide crisis in veterans’ health-care services. President Donald Trump is expected to sign an extension of the Choice Act on Wednesday, providing funding at least through January.

Private treatment normally is offered to veterans under the Choice Program only if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or cannot get VA care within 30 days. However, the CVS clinic option is open to all veterans based on a VA ruling that there is an “unusual or excessive” need.

Veterans issued prescriptions at the CVS facility will have two options: They may purchase medications on site with their own funds and subsequently apply for VA reimbursement; or they can obtain medications from the VA hospital pharmacy.

Maureen McCarthy, chief of staff at the Phoenix VA hospital, said an electronic system has been established to ensure continuity of care for veterans. She said medical summaries created at CVS outlets will be shared electronically with VA primary-care physicians.

About 90,000 Arizonans are enrolled in the Phoenix VA system, but roughly 30,000 winter visitors also use the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center and its satellite clinics. The program is open to all veterans within the Phoenix system, but does not extend to systems caring for veterans in Tucson, Prescott or Flagstaff.

CVS participated in a mini-trial of the system in Palo Alto, California, last year, but Phoenix is taking on the first large-scale operation. Dr. Baligh Yehia, deputy VA undersecretary for community care, said private partnerships are critical to the department’s mission. “Our Number One priority is getting veterans access to care when and where they need it,” Yehia added in a news release.

Coordination of the program will be handled by TriWest Healthcare Alliance, one of two companies nationwide with VA contracts to set up private-care options for veterans under the Choice Program. Officials said they are not able to predict how many patients will take advantage of the MinuteClinic option, or what the costs will be. However, TriWest CEO David McIntyre said he anticipates the clinic appointments will be less expensive than emergency-room visits.

Dr. Tobias Barker, chief medical officer for CVS, touted the MinuteClinic model of care and said nurse practitioners are geared up for an increasing patient load.

Phoenix VA officials said there was no contract bidding, and CVS will be the only clinic offering services during the pilot project.

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