After a long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, one veteran-run company is making it easier for veterans to get the care they need.
The cost of a knee replacement or hip replacement can easily exceed $80,000. While veterans can receive this treatment as part of the VA health care system, many private insurance companies will not. Because of this, many veterans have no way to afford this kind of care. With the help of a new partnership between the VA and Bridgepoint Health, however, veterans can be placed in a network of health care providers, which will help them receive care sooner.
For a lot of vets, getting the care they need is as difficult as it is necessary. Veterans may wait months to see a doctor, and in many cases, there is no guarantee that an appointment will be made. With public insurance, many veterans pay a hefty premium for their health care. Yet, the benefits aren’t always used.. Read more about good vets near me and let us know what you think.Each year, about 200,000 members leave the service or retire, often without a clear plan for the future.
Some of the biggest challenges veterans face include health care and benefits, finding and keeping a job, adapting to civilian culture, and the many financial issues that can arise.
The difficulty in navigating the issue is compounded by the fact that there are now more than 45,000 nonprofit organizations in the United States that provide services to veterans, ranging from housing to mental health to food security, according to a 2015 report by the nonprofit organization GuideStar.
Veterans Dan Brillman and Taylor Justice have experienced this system first hand.
Brillman, an Air Force reserve pilot who served in the Middle East in 2010 and 2012, met Justice, who was medically discharged in 2007 after serving as an infantryman in the Army, at Columbia Business School in 2012.
Within five minutes of meeting, we both realized we shared the same passion and vision about what was needed, Justice says.
For veterans trying to find their way in the world of health and social services, administrative delays and nightmares can be enough to keep them from seeking help. Brillman and Justice found that some agencies even used outdated methods to communicate with other agencies – sticky notes and word of mouth.
If you’re working with someone with PTSD or other mental health issues, a highly irritating environment can cause depression, Justice says.
In 2013, for example, Brillman and Justice founded the technology company Unite Us with the intent of closing gaps in care coordination and creating a point of access to community, health and other services for veterans. Today, Unite Us operates in 42 states across the country and offers software that is accessible to any military member, veteran or family member of a military member, regardless of discharge status.
Brillman and Justice recently spoke to HistoryNet about how technology can help veterans access health care.
MT: Can you tell us about your background and how the idea for Unite Us came about?
Dan Brillman:I went to Yale University for my first degree and then joined the Air Force as a pilot. I spent 14 years in the army as a reservist. In my first five or six years, I did a lot of business travel. When I returned from my first shift, I went to Columbia Business School. The veterans I served with abroad started calling me with all the health and social problems, as if I could solve them. I guess they thought I was smart, but I had no experience in the field. This represented a large number of searches on Google.
I tried calling agencies across the country to help reservists who were returning to their hometowns with problems ranging from housing to PTSD to health insurance because they didn’t qualify for veterans benefits. Everything was very tight. When I called the agency, they usually said: Sorry I can’t help you, but call my friend Jane across the street. They gave me offline referrals to four or five partners they knew in the community who could help this person.
This really frustrated me and, like any good MBA, I wrote a paper on fragmentation and how technology can solve this problem.
Taylor Justice:I graduated from West Point in 2006, was commissioned as an infantry officer, and unfortunately I was medically discharged. Much of what Dan just told me, I tried to figure out on my own: talking to a veteran, finding a new job, finding an apartment. I was lucky enough to have the West Point network, and that’s how I ended up in Philadelphia, where I got my first job.
I volunteered with a non-profit veterans organization called Team Red, White and Blue and founded the Philadelphia chapter of this national non-profit. The organization does physical training and community service, but as our department has grown from five people to over 600, more and more people have come with needs beyond our capabilities.
If a veteran needed help with housing, work and food, three different organizations offered these services – they coordinated the help through sticky notes, emails and phone calls. It was an administrative nightmare.
When I applied to Columbia Business School, I was paired with Dan to talk about applying to the program. After about five minutes, we both had a common vision of what we needed. In early 2013, we launched Unite Us to provide communities with software to better coordinate care for veterans and service members. However, it has since been extended to all populations and is used in 42 states.
For the past two years, Unite Us has moved to Medicare and now serves citizens. How have you been able to stay focused on your original mission in your work with veteran communities?
Brillman:There are two parts to how this has developed in the military community. The networks we have built have taught the big agnostic networks how to do this work, because we have been doing it the longest. What does success look like? How can we use data to fill gaps in service delivery? Something like that.
In North Carolina, for example, we gathered all the veteran leaders who led these networks and said: That’s how it’s supposed to work.
At the same time, we have found that most of the organizations using our platform are not just veterans’ organizations. They have a specific program for veterans, but they serve all populations. This has facilitated the expansion of our products and services.
Justice:Word expansion is very important to us. When you work in the tech industry, everyone uses scary terms: Oh, you escaped the vets. That’s not the case. Veterans and military personnel are the perfect petri dish of American society when considering age, race, and socioeconomic status. The same problems we have, they have.
But in some cases, you may not have access to these services. So what are you going to do? We have found that the veteran community is an ideal testing ground for finding a solution for all citizens, regardless of background. If you have multiple organizations that need to coordinate care for one person, we have a solution for you.
The two founders of Unite Us during a team event. (Courtesy of Unite Us)
To use one of those buzzwords and come back to veterans, some of the biggest issues facing the veteran community are access to mental health care and homelessness. How has Unite Us helped to fill these gaps?
Brillman:When you think about the needs of veterans, what we know and what we’ve studied is that it’s not so much about mental health, but about having to navigate all these silos of health care, government, and social services.
For the poor customer, this is the most embarrassing thing. Removing these barriers is the key to success. It is not a question of these services not being there at all, but of having the right infrastructure in place to access them effectively.
The most important part before we could do that was to create a supply chain to make sure they were connected and communicating. It’s not just about mental health. There are housing or unemployment problems. To accomplish this, all of these organizations must work together and reduce the frustrations of navigating the health care system.
Justice:According to Dan, it can be particularly difficult to navigate these resources. The search for solutions is not just about how to solve my housing problem or my mental health problem. What causes those other things?
I can pay the rent for a while, but if I don’t solve the employment problem or some other cause of the problem, the person will be back in the same cycle in no time.
We create an ecosystem so that when you connect to a network, it works for you.
Does the CTF coordinate its activities with the SA?
Brillman:We have VAs using our system on the inbound side. One of the things the VA really wants to do is get more veterans into the program. In this way, we want to create a pathway to the VA that would otherwise not be available through community organizations. VA really only does one or two things, right? They provide primary care, medical services and some behavioral health services. Furthermore, they cannot teach, so they need contacts in the community.
We have also attracted and catalyzed the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the targeting centers to the facility, as they are also access points. This should not be limited to being in transition or already a veteran. It was very important to activate these organizations and access points.
How has COVID-19 affected your mission?
Justice:I think one of the important things that we’ve identified is the lack of adequate public health infrastructure. The first priority was to address the clinical response to the COVID 19 pandemic. But the second and third orders are exerting unprecedented pressure on human and social service systems.
You have people who are unemployed or community organizations that have had to close their doors. They have children who no longer have access to food because the school is closed. This pressure on local systems has made it difficult to manage services in the future with sticky notes, leaflets and phone calls. An appropriate supply chain was required.
We were fortunate to be able to meet the needs of the state and provide the infrastructure. Prior to 2022, we only had one national network (in North Carolina), which was a nationwide collaborative with health systems and neighborhood health plans. In 2022 we could repeat it 16 times, that’s how big the need was.
Therefore, we continue to work on developing a comprehensive solution that will allow the community to identify people in need, enroll them in appropriate services, and track the use of those services, with the ultimate goal of putting the sector on a path where social care is as much a priority as health care.
Who do you often see served by your software?
Justice:I think the real north of this job is Can I prove that someone received services or not? Technology must be responsible and effective. This supply chain is really important because people will think: Once I have the latest resources, all I have to do is pass them on to a veteran or their family. But you can’t just give someone resources, you have to build the infrastructure, prove that the veteran is actually coming in, and then continue to adapt and refine that network over time.
I think that’s the difference between the market and the pandemic we’re experiencing now. It’s no longer enough to say: Hey, here are the sources. They have to prove that they really work.
How can veterans participate in the program when there is distrust of the system?
Brillman:I think it’s about getting the veterans where they are, rather than trying to build a system that they don’t trust. Many of them are community based – VFW or local Rotary. We’re trying to find access points. It’s not just a medical problem, is it? It’s a matter of trust.
Justice:Trust is so important, but trust evolves at the speed of innovation, doesn’t it? When I finally get a Vietnam veteran to come in and say: Hey, you know what, I need help and then it takes 30, 60, 90 days to track him down or take care of him, is that going to create an environment where he trusts that system?
We now live in a world where technology can do a lot for us and help us work more efficiently. We wanted to create a network, so that when someone comes in and needs help, you connect them to a network that works for them.
For one last tough question, Military Times recently published a sandwich ranking of military branches on social media. The Army was a grilled cheese sandwich. Air Force was described as French Dip. Do you agree with this ultra-serious classification? And if not, why not?
Justice:We have always said that air bases are built on golf courses, so the fact that it is a French sandwich is appropriate.
Brillman:I think that’s fine. I’m telling you, it’s in fashion.
Justice:I thought the military was like MREs of macaroni and cheese. It’s reliable. But a grilled cheese sandwich? Yeah, I’m in.
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