Routt County veteran fights for better veteran health care in rural Colorado and nationally
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Health care benefits for veterans aren’t just handed over. They must be constantly fought for, as Jim Stanko knows firsthand.
Today, Stanko, who served in the U.S. Army after being drafted in the early 1970’s, dedicates a significant amount of time and energy to ensuring veterans receive the health care they need — and earned.
Stanko is a third generation rancher, operating a centennial ranch with a cattle and hay operation, on Routt County Road 33, but addressing the challenges facing veterans in rural areas, in particular, is the work closest to Stanko’s heart.
It was in the 1980’s, when he was working at the Routt County Extension Office, Stanko became involved in health care issues facing veterans. His office was next door to the local Veterans Affairs office. He soon joined the American Legion and became commander of Post 44 in 1995. He also became a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
One of the first issues Stanko worked on was bringing a telehealth clinic to Craig.
With the closest VA hospital located in Grand Junction, Stanko saw a need for veterans, especially the World War II vets, to get care closer to home.
The telehealth clinic in Craig was the first of its kind in Colorado, Stanko said, and “set a standard for the state and the country.” It provided a place where a nurse practitioner covers basic care, can draw blood, monitor vital signs and teleconference with VA doctors in Grand Junction for additional needs.
Because of his work with the telehealth clinic, Stanko was appointed to the Colorado Board for Veterans Affairs in 2006. He has served as chairman for the past two years.
Through his work on the state board, they were able to utilize money from tabacco lawsuits to establish a veteran trust fund for grants.
Stanko and Post 44 applied for one of the first grants, allowing them to provide transportation for veterans to and from Grand Junction or wherever they received treatment.
They’ve gotten that funding for about 15 years, Stanko said, though it is never guaranteed and must be applied for on an annual basis.
Six years ago, Stanko was appointed to the American Legion’s Veteran Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission.
He just returned from his sixth lobbying trip to Washington D.C., where Stanko and a group of other veterans from across the country held meetings with every congress member.
He personally met with Reps. Scott Tipton, Doug Lamborn, Ken Buck and Sen. Cory Gardner — thus “covering almost all of rural Colorado.”
While there are numerous legislative issues the American Legion advocates for, Stanko pointed to three at the top of his priority list.
First is support for the VA’s suicide-prevention efforts. An estimated 20 veterans end their lives every day, and most were not receiving care or support through the VA — support that may have saved them — according to the American Legion’s Legislative Agenda.
Access to mental health care isn’t readily available, Stanko said. And they are seeing a lot of younger veterans returning with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
While there may have not been any veteran suicides in Routt County in recent years, there are a lot of young veterans returning from service, and the “potential is there.” Stanko wants to be proactive on the preventative measures, like expanding mental health treatment.
A second important issue is improving health care for female veterans. Women now make up about 30 percent of the military, Stanko said. And a large percentage don’t enroll for benefits, according the American Legion, with one of the factors being “limited gender-specific treatment services.”
Stanko has been involved in visits to hospitals with suggestions on how they can “better accommodate women veterans.” And hospitals in Denver and Grand Junction have responded as a result, he said. They’ve created separate areas within the VA hospitals and adapted other components to better serve women. “I can say I’ve been a part of the group getting the VA to recognize and establish better health care accommodations for women,” he said.
Stanko’s biggest push is for the implementation of the VA Mission Act. In 2014, the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act, known as the Choice Act, was passed, but it was rife with problems, Stanko said.
In order to get care from chosen or local providers, there were numerous layers through which to navigate — both for veterans and providers. And providers often weren’t seeing the reimbursements they were promised.
The intent was to allow veterans to choose their health care providers, but the actual execution was poorly designed, Stanko said.
“The implementation was sort of on the spur of the moment to make people feel better. It just didn’t work.”
It has since been replaced with the 2018 Mission Act, which addresses many of the insufficiencies, Stanko said. But, it still has to be funded.
The hope is to see implementation by June, he said. Under the Mission Act, veterans will first go to the VA hospital. If the VA hospital can’t provide the immediate and necessary services, then the VA will assign the patient to a local or outside provider.
Another important component of the Mission Act, Stanko said, is the stipend provided to at-home caregivers. But, part of that battle has been getting the stipend to apply for older, pre-September 11, 2001, veterans.
For decades, Stanko has put in countless hours toward advocating for his fellow veterans, in addition to running a ranch.
“It’s a passion for me,” he said. “I’ve always felt living in rural areas has often given us the short straw in getting the benefits veterans deserve.”
In addition to his annual trip to D.C., Stanko keeps track of everything happening legislatively as the state and national level and attends town halls with local representatives.
Looking forward, he wants to see more young veterans get involved. “They don’t always realize the benefits they are getting are because of the veterans who came before.”
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