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Prioritizing our veterans is central to restoring America

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Melissa A. Seel, an aerospace medical technician with the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, checks a homeless veteran’s blood pressure during Stand Down 2017 at the All Wars Memorial Building in Atlantic City, N.J., May 17, 2017. (New Jersey National Guard photo by Mark C. Olsen/Released)
May 11, 2020

One of our great warriors whom I have had the honor to treat is a Vietnam veteran who suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a chronic painful condition with significant medical co-morbidities that have given him pause during this pandemic. 

Norm didn’t go to Vietnam only to be forgotten here at home.

American society has been adversely affected by COVID-19, not just from the virus but through the precautions and policies implemented to slow its spread. Intended to minimize the overburdening of our medical facilities, these actions have also had a devastatingly stalling effect on the U.S. and world economies — not just globally, but underneath the roof of each home. 

This adverse impact has hit the homes and lives of veterans particularly hard.

Our veterans deserve better, and as we work to re-open our economy, it’s imperative we put veterans and their needs front and center – in particular, we need to consider specific veteran challenges in this COVID era, including workforce and hiring initiatives by the private and public sectors and particularly proactive health care for both the mind and body.

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Over the past two years, I was the chair of the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force that was convened by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Veterans Administration (VA) with the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to address acute and chronic pain in light of the ongoing opioid crisis.  We identified military active duty, reservists and veterans as particularly vulnerable populations and detailed how pain management can be complex in military populations, who experience combat-related injuries.  

The coronavirus pandemic is further complicating their already complex pain management process and is adversely impacting their mental health. 

We need to step in and help. Specific things we must do: 

  • Stay connected with our great Veterans, whether via phone calls or text messaging to ensure they know they are not alone
  • Utilize available resources to help our heroes through online behavioral therapy and other wellness resources; encourage veterans to reach out to doctors and clinicians who are available by telemedicine, or in-person. Virtual healthcare is an important connection for our veterans and one that cannot be overstated in providing a continuum for patient medical treatment.
  • Limit red tape and bureaucracy around preemptive solutions that address socio-economic hardships through easy-to-apply for and user-friendly stimulus measures, business loans and proactive health care initiatives.
  • Support more than ever our military and veterans’ organizations with our pocketbooks.

Now in his 80’s, Norm is acutely aware of the toll his medical conditions have taken on him; his now-limited access to healthcare means, like so many other veterans, he’s living with worsening pain and increased stress and anxiety knowing that he is vulnerable and in the highest risk category.

Norm has sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that can affect various organs including the lungs, giving him greater concern. With the current COVID crisis the healthcare system has taken extreme measures to limit elective procedures and visits, while Norm also has his own concerns about his exposure in hospitals.

Recent testing data indicates that at least 9,691 U.S. veterans have tested positive for COVID-19, with 770 veteran deaths reported in VA facilities – and these numbers are changing daily. Most of the men and women in this community are at a higher risk for COVID due to their age, with over half of the population being over 65 – as noted by Norm’s case. 

The added worry of catching the virus and the halt in care for non-COVID related medical issues results in further health deterioration among our veterans. Underlying health issues and concerns put veterans at a greater disadvantage while dealing with this pandemic. It is imperative the Department of Veterans Affairs and all medical centers ensure that there are enough hospital and medical resources to support the specific veteran population due to both direct virus-related and non-virus related issues.

Physical health and impairment are only a part of the concerns: An equally important aspect of the viral epidemic is veterans’ mental health effects including anxiety and stress. Many veterans are already dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues which are clearly exacerbated by the increased pressures and fear of the unknown from the pandemic. 

Equally concerning is the economic disruption sadly felt throughout our nation but hitting veterans particularly hard, further stacking the deck against them. 

Since the founding of our nation, those who serve have been adversely affected by the circumstances of their sacrifices. From life and limb to emotional scars – all have incredibly impacted quality of life.

COVID-19 should not add to the burden of their heroic service by the current bleak situation that surrounds our veterans. It is a battle they would never voluntarily surrender to on their own, but one that threatens the livelihoods of so many while tragically leaving many isolated and without access to healthcare.

More than ever we need to come together to support these amazing courageous women and men whose suffering is further exacerbated from job loss, stress and anxiety, inadequate pain control and functioning, and possible deterioration of their current health issues. 

Prioritizing our veterans such as Norm and his veteran brothers and sisters must be part of every effort to restore the health and the economy of this great country.

Dr. Vanila Singhis the immediate past Chief Medical Officer to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Chair of the Pain Management Task Force. She is currently an associate professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford University Medical Center and has a background in molecular and cell biology and economics. Dr. Singh is a regular contributor for the FOX News digital broadcast on CoronavirusNOW.com and media throughout the Bay Area.  Follow her on Twitter @vanilasingh

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected]