department of veterans affairs, veteran health care, Hurricane Maria, Jonathan Kaupanger

VA healthcare in Caribbean is there, just barely

gettyimages 854878906 VA healthcare in Caribbean is there, just barely

COROZAL, PUERTO RICO – SEPTEMBER 27: Jose Bernard and his daughter Yolymar Bernard salvage what they can from their home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through in Corozal, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

Functioning under contingency operations, the VA’s Caribbean Healthcare system continues recovery from Hurricane Maria. The VA’s main medical center in San Juan only had minor flooding and damage, however, destruction to the islands infrastructure means the hospital is open with limited services.

There are more than 90,000 veterans living in the Caribbean.

For now, the following services are available at the San Juan VAMC: Emergency Room, Psychiatric Intervention Center, Inpatient Services, Coumadin Clinic, Radiotherapy, Chemotherapy and Hemodialysis.  All other scheduled appointments and elective procedures are canceled.  Veterans impacted by closures will be contacted by VA staff to reschedule appointments as soon as possible.

The main phone number for the VAMC is not working, however, you can reach the center by calling (910) 475-6515 or (800) 449-8729. This is an automated attendant, so follow prompts or dial an extension to reach a human.

There is an island-wide curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Patient visitation at the San Juan VAMC is only Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and only two visitors per patient until further notice.

The clinics in Comerio, Ceiba, Gayama and Mayaguez are open. Dental services at the Mayaguez clinic are closed at this time. A mobile medical unit is stationed at the Arecibo clinic and is open Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Outpatient clinics in Ponce, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Utuado and Vieques are closed until further notice.

There will be a handout service in St. Thomas for mail tomorrow, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Packages can be picked up at East End/Tutu Mall for addresses with 00805 zip codes.  Customers with a 00802 zip code can pick up items at Havensight. Charlotte Amalie is providing mail for 00801, 00803, 00805 and 00802.  Post offices in St. John, St. Croix and Puerto Rico remain closed at this time. The US Postal Service is not accepting Priority Mail Express service or shipment of live animals to Puerto Rico.

For veterans who receive their benefit payments through the mail, the VA has come up with a few options to keep this going even if the mail system is stopped due to the storms. Direct deposit is the easiest way to get your payments. Veterans can sign up either online at the VA’s eBenefits site or by calling (800) 827-1000.

For veterans in the storm affected areas, the Direct Express Cardless Benefit Access program can help with the more emergent financial needs. Veterans can get up to $1,000 even if they don’t have their card.

Contact the Direct Express Call Center by calling (888) 741-1115 and choose the “Direct Express Cardless Benefit Access” option. This is a free service, however, because of system limitations, a fee will be charged, then refunded. You’ll need to go to a MoneyGram storm to pick up the funds. Proper ID is needed and if the beneficiary is unable to pick up the money, it will be added back on the card.

Patients are urged to bring their list of active medications or empty bottles when visiting any of the VA clinics. If you can, you should always try the VA Pharmacy where you received your original prescription first.  If that pharmacy is closed due to a storm, the Pharmacy Disaster Relief Plan lets veterans in damaged areas get an emergency supply of medications.  To do this you will need a VA ID card, a written prescription or a VA prescription bottle that’s not older than six months and has refills available. To get a 10-day supply, just go to any retail pharmacy that’s open to the public.  You must have your VA ID card and you cannot get controlled substances by using this emergency service.

Another option for veterans needing medication or if you’ve lost your prescription, you can call the Heritage Health Customer Care Line. VA Patients in affected areas can call (866) 265-0124 and you want option one.  This helpline is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 10p.m. and on the weekends it’s open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.

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