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WASHINGTON -- When a congressional panel was looking for examples of innovative VA hospital system projects, they highlighted an Arkansas project that encourages veterans to talk about emergency and end-of-life health-care planning.

Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee listened attentively Wednesday as Dr. Kimberly Garner of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System described the program, started in Little Rock in October 2013.

Veterans gather and discuss the importance of planning ahead for key medical decisions rather than waiting until there's a crisis, she said.

So far, more than 1,300 people have participated in the group discussions that typically last from 30 minutes to an hour.

There are forms that veterans can take home, enabling them to complete a living will or to complete a durable power of attorney. The person who is designated is empowered to make the health care decisions if the veteran is unable to make the decisions for himself.

Some people prefer to learn about their options in a group setting, rather than discussing them one-on-one, Garner said.

Veterans are provided with self-addressed, stamped envelopes so the forms are easy to return. But sometimes, participants decide not to delay.

"If they want to fill one out on the spot, they can. I have seen a veteran filling out the form as we're talking and then getting a veteran on either side of them to be their witness," Garner said in an interview.

Given its success in Arkansas, the program was duplicated at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass.

Now that there's been a successful rollout there, Department of Veterans Affairs officials plan to eventually offer the program nationwide.

In prepared testimony, Deputy Undersecretary for Organizational Excellence Dr. Carolyn Clancy of the Veterans Health Administration said the VA system is "fertile ground for innovation" and cited the Arkansas project as a good example.

Rather than forcing doctors or the patients' loved ones to make "difficult, life-altering decisions," the program empowers veterans to make their wishes known ahead of time.

The program has been identified as one of 13 "best practices" as part of the VA's "Diffusion of Excellence" initiative, she told lawmakers.

Thanks to Garner and others, "more veterans are having those important discussions early, bringing peace of mind to themselves, their families and those who care for them," she added.

In an interview, Clancy said Garner is "terrific" and is enabling veterans to talk about issues that are "hugely important."

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who serves on the committee, said he was glad to see Garner's work recognized.

"She's so well-respected and just does a tremendous job. She's somebody that not only the VA's very proud of, but also the veterans that she takes care of," he said.

Metro on 09/08/2016

Print Headline: State VA project keeps panel rapt

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