Of the eight million Veterans currently enrolled in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) health care system, about three million live in rural areas. One of the biggest challenges rural Veterans contend with is how to get access to the health care services they need. Since 2006, the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Rural Health (ORH), within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), has been charged with developing evidence-based policies and innovative practices to improve access and quality of health care for enrolled rural Veterans residing in these geographically remote areas. ORH’s primary objectives center on working collaboratively with internal VA offices and external rural health experts to refine current programs as well as develop new solutions to address the unique health care challenges rural Veterans face.
Confronted with the daunting challenge of being a relatively new, high-profile national office within the VA, ORH awarded Atlas Research, in partnership with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, a $30 million contract to establish the ORH Policy and Planning Group (PPG). Atlas undertook these responsibilities amid a period of intense Congressional scrutiny of VA, with the public questioning the agency’s ability to meet the needs of enrolled rural Veterans.
From the PPG platform, the project team implemented an impressive array of health care initiatives, including:
- Providing program support in managing and monitoring 74 nationally implemented rural health projects by Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) and VHA program offices;
- Helping develop a new rural health performance metrics system to evaluate and report on program outcomes and impacts on rural Veteran populations;
- Providing rapid response legislative support and assistance with Congressional reporting requirements;
- Helping establish and provide planning and professional staff support to the federal Veterans Rural Health Advisory Committee and providing research support to the Committee in drafting its inaugural annual report to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs;
- Producing a series of policy studies and a comprehensive multimedia Educational Symposium Series (available via live satellite broadcast and the VA content on-demand system); and
- Supporting the development of a network of Veterans Rural Health Resource Centers and helping to develop guidance documents and strategic plans across a number of new ORH initiatives.
The project team's development and dedicated oversight of these national programs significantly contributed to the ORH mission to expand and advance the rural Veteran population’s access to critically needed health care services.