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VA in Buffalo – and nationwide – streamlines hearing, eye tests

World War II veteran Robert Wiedemer has always been pleased with the care he’s received at the VA Medical Center in Buffalo, but he and other veterans in occasional need of audiology and vision services have even more to celebrate these days.

They no longer have to see a primary care doctor for a referral for hearing and eye tests – just pick up the phone and make an appointment. In some cases, they can walk right in to the fifth-floor ear clinic and sixth-floor eye clinic.

Wiedemer, who served with the Navy in the Pacific, was happy it took only four days recently to get one of his two hearing aids repaired. He’s also glad he relented a decade ago and got them in the first place – after his family complained the TV was far too loud when he was watching.

“It was wonderful, almost as good as having a cataract removed,” said Wiedemer, 92, who works as a starter in the summer at the Sheridan Park Golf Course in the Town of Tonawanda and winter weekends at the town golf dome. “I could never be working now if I didn’t have hearing aids.”

“We have a saying for sight and hearing that ‘one and one make three.’ If you lose both, the effect on your life is much greater than twice the loss of one of those.” – Dr. Geert Craenen, Buffalo VA Medical Center ophthalmologist.

Veterans need to enroll for VA health care to receive services. They may do so at any VA Veterans Service Center, call 862-8829 in the Buffalo area or 585-297-1053 in Batavia, or visit va.gov/healthbenefits.

Those enrolled can bypass a doctor – and potential co-pay – for hearing tests, hearing aids, eye tests and glasses. Schedule a hearing appointment at 862-6095 or 800-532-8387, Ext. 6095; schedule an eye appointment at 862-8788 or 800-532-8387, Ext. 8788, for Buffalo, or 585-297-1079 for the Batavia center.

“Overall, folks who analyze our program say that overall access to audiology for veterans decreased by 25.7 days when the need to see a primary care provider for a consult was removed. For optometry, the overall wait time for access decreased by 15.2 days,” said Lisa Bedford, the systems redesign coordinator for the Buffalo VA, who served as project director for the direct scheduling rollout.

“Labor hours redirected since the change on Oct. 1 amount to a 7,000 hour savings," Bedford said. "Administrative staff saved about an hour a day. Clinical folks were freed up to serve other vets for more urgent care. In some cases, it saved the vets from making two trips, as well.”

Audiologist Joyce O’Brien, chief of the audiology clinic, and Dr. Geert Craenen, an ophthalmologist in charge of the eye clinics in the Buffalo and Batavia VA centers, talked last week about the impact of the new change on their departments. The hearing clinic expanded during a renovation 18 months ago and the Buffalo eye clinic will undergo a similar 30 percent expansion this spring.

Q. How do veterans discover they need a hearing test?

"In the hearing world, we have trial periods where veterans can try out a hearing aid to make sure it’s something they will wear on a regular basis," says Joyce O'Brien, head of the Audiology Department at the Buffalo VA Medical Center.

O’Brien: Most of the time when I ask a veteran when they noticed a hearing problem, the answer is typically “my wife or my family noticed it.” That’s what prompts them to come into the clinic. Here at the VA, we do very high-tech hearing aids, all digital. Some veterans require accessories to go along with their hearing aids. What the veteran needs is what we service. A set of hearing aids could cost $5,000 or $6,000. Veterans receive hearing aids for free. Sometimes, there is a co-pay but it’s minimal. The hearing aids, the accessories, the repairs, the batteries, the cleaning tools – anything the veteran would need to service that hearing aid – is available to them. If they need a repair, we try to get the hearing aid back to them as soon as possible.

Q. What do hear from vets who need an eye test?

Craenen: There’s two types. One type comes in because they’re having difficulty reading or driving or watching TV. Then there are those who go by a calendar: “It’s been two years, so I’ve got to go, complaints or no complaints.”

Q. What is the process like now for those who need glasses?

Craenen: Patients who aren’t established with a primary care provider had to establish that before they could be sent to our clinic. That’s no longer the case for a refraction appointment to get new glasses. In other words, it respects the autonomy of the patient. ... We also just instituted a Saturday refraction clinic. It runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback.

Q. When a veteran calls to make an appointment, what happens ?

O’Brien: We negotiate a time that’s good for them. They come in and have a hearing assessment by an audiologist who determines what is appropriate and discuss that with the veteran. If a hearing aid is appropriate, they discuss types of hearing aids, issues they might have with dexterity, vision. We find a hearing aid that’s appropriate. If it’s not a hearing aid, maybe it’s some kind of amplified TV device, some other kind of an accessory, an amplified telephone that a veteran might benefit from. They they would come back about three weeks later to pick up and go over the device. After that, we have walk-in clinic every day for veterans who are having problems, need repairs, have questions.

Q. How do you help ease the concerns veterans first come in with?

O’Brien: In the hearing world, we have trial periods where veterans can try out a hearing aid to make sure it’s something they will wear on a regular basis. We utilize that trial period so they can come and see us to make sure they’re getting all the benefits that they can. If they’re not satisfied, we can return it for credit and look at other options.

Craenen: Veterans can give things a try – and it’s not costing them anything. It’s the best health insurance there is.”

Q. What reaction do you get from people after they’ve had their hearing aid or glasses for a while?

O’Brien: “I didn’t realize it was going to be like this.” The technology has improved so much in regard to hearing aids, especially because we’re doing digital hearing aids. These are smart hearing aids, just like smart cellphones. They’re able to self-adjust for different environments, for white noise. It does take time for a veteran to train their brain to get used to an artificial sound – generally, a four- to six-week period of using the hearing aid in the beginning – but after that, it’s good.

Craenen: We have a saying for sight and hearing that “one and one make three.” If you lose both, the effect on your life is much greater than twice the loss of one of those. If you restore both, the impact is much greater than the sum of the parts.

O’Brien: Some veterans have told me they’d stopped going to club activities or meetings or out with friends because they were embarrassed that they couldn’t hear the conversation. Part of our support is to help them get back to social interaction. ... It’s extremely rewarding.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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