Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Program helps Vets connect with docs
A national VA initiative launched nearly a year ago but then sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic is now back on track.
On Wednesday, Dec. 16, at a Walmart in Fond du Lac, Wis., U.S. Navy Veteran Mitchell Musack was able to meet remotely with dietitian Deb Woelfel in a small room connected to the store’s pharmacy.
“This is so cool,” the 46-year-old Musack said of the setup, which included a large video screen mounted on a wall opposite and table, chair and computer keyboard. “I can see the benefit in this.”
Musack was the first Veteran in the Fond du Lac area to take advantage of the relaunched Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations (ATLAS) program.
Begun nearly two years ago, ATLAS offers virtual connections for health appointments for Veterans at convenient sites, such as Walmart stores or American Legion posts.
It’s geared toward Veterans who may not have the equipment or technological savvy to connect to VA Video Connect from their homes, or those who live in communities with limited internet access.
And for Veterans like Musack, who is accustomed to telehealth visits, it offers an additional convenience.
“I work in Fond du Lac, so for me it’s very convenient,” he said.
After being piloted at sites across the country, ATLAS was nearly ready for its rollout about this time last year, according to Scot Kueper, facility telehealth coordinator for the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
But when the pandemic hit, the program was put on hold as communities instituted lockdowns, businesses shut their doors and people – especially those most vulnerable to the virus -- were told to stay home.
“Before COVID, we had a lot of interest from Veterans going to Walmart,” said Leeann Farber, medical support assistant supervisor for the Appleton VA Clinic. “But when COVID hit, no one wanted to go out.”
“I think this is absolutely wonderful because it will allow more people to have access (to health care). It’s private. It’s convenient. There are just a lot of advantages.”Jake Emling, Fond du Lac Walmart pharmacy manager
All ATLAS sites were taken offline on April 10 “to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and implement additional safety and infection control measures,” according to news release from the VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental affairs.
But as lockdowns eased and safety measures were put in place, ATLAS services resumed at five Walmarts across the country, with Fond du Lac being one of them.
“I think this is absolutely wonderful because it will allow more people to have access (to health care),” said Jake Emling, manager of the Fond du Lac Walmart’s pharmacy. “It’s private. It’s convenient. There are just a lot of advantages.”
“This is a win-win. The patient doesn’t have to worry about going to an office full of sick people, and the doctor doesn’t have to worry about being exposed to sick people.”
Emling said he has talked with Veterans in the Fond du Lac community who feel isolated because they don’t have access to virtual care, which has quickly become the norm during the pandemic.
“So to see this in our community – that Walmart is willing to try to come up with a resolution for that problem – I think is wonderful. It’s a great community service.”
During his session with the dietitian, Musack said at one point the connection was lost, requiring a reboot.
He said a similar technical glitch might be a challenge for an elderly Veteran unaccustomed to technology.
The room does feature an informational poster with a phone number to call in case of problems, plus the room is adjacent to the pharmacy, so help is readily available nearby.
“Overall, I think it’s good,” he said. “I think you guys have got something here.”
For now, the Fond du Lac Walmart ATLAS site is open 10 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
And while there aren’t many appointments now, Emling said he expects that to pick up as the word spreads about the service.
“I do foresee good use,” he said. “Right now is a tough time; patients may not want to go to Walmart for their care during a pandemic. But as the vaccine rolls out, by next year, we’ll probably be very busy.”
Plans call for the expansion of ATLAS to more sites nationwide by 2023.
Veterans interested in taking advantage of the ATLAS site at the Fond du Lac Walmart, 377 N. Rolling Meadows Drive, can contact Leeann Farber at 920-831-0700, ext. 47924, or Scot Kueper at 414-384-2000, ext. 44516.
What is ATLAS?
ATLAS -- Accessing Telehealth Through Local Area Stations -- allows Veterans to connect to VA providers by video. During ATLAS appointments, Veterans meet with VA providers via VA Video Connect, VA’s secure videoconferencing software.
What services are offered through ATLAS?
The local VA facility that is associated with the ATLAS site determines which clinical services the site offers. Services may include primary care, mental health counseling, clinical pharmacy, nutrition services, social work and more.
What can one expect during an ATLAS appointment?
Once Veterans arrive at an ATLAS site, they will be greeted by an on-site attendant who will guide them to the appointment room and help them check in for their appointment. The attendant can also help them troubleshoot basic technical issues. The attendants are not VA employees. They will not be present during the appointment, and they do not have access to medical or personal information.