Veterans Administration Makes Strides in Integrative Health Programs

Programs that support the concepts of integrative health and wellbeing are gaining traction at the Veterans Health Administration. According to Ben Kligler, M.D., director of the Integrative Health Coordinating Center at the VA’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, this huge organization, with 140 centers treating six million patients annually, is seeing these programs make a difference for veterans. At the recent Congressional Integrative Health and Wellness Caucus in Washington, D.C., Kligler discussed the department’s efforts to move forward with programs that focus beyond drugs and surgery, inquiring what patients are living for and their health goals.

It is a big shift for both patients and physicians, Kligler told attendees. He stressed that the effort goes far beyond pain management. “We talk about pain, but the big opportunity in the opioid crisis is the opportunity to learn from it—that the whole concept of taking a pill for a disease is really flawed, and if we change how we handle pain, that will be great, but it won’t be enough,“ he said. “The same opportunity applies to how we’re handling diabetes, heart disease and mental health. It’s about flipping the concept of where healing takes place.” We have an opportunity to push the envelope, he added, and “the fact that this caucus exists shows that it’s time for this to happen.”



Jill Sheppard Davenport, a certified nutrition specialist who works at VA hospitals in the Integrative Health and Wellness Program has first-hand knowledge of how programs like nutrition, meditation and health coaching are helping patients. “Nutrition is core to health,” she told Caucus attendees, “but not yet core to health care.” She explained how anti-inflammatory foods like ginger, sweet potato, cashew, and kale work as medicines to prevent the compounds that can cause pain and stoke the fires of inflammation.  Davenport shared three policy priorities: to expand Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement to cover nutrition for pain; to educate patients about programs like SNAP-Ed funding and the USDA nutrition guidelines to help them understand the power of food as medicine; and to use existing programs like SNAP and WIC and expand funding so providers can prescribe food as medicine.

There is tremendous progress. The VA is in the midst of a three-year project to coordinate the efforts among care teams and look at the outcomes for these programs. Kligler noted that in 2017, the VA passed a policy mandating that evidence-based complementary/integrative health and wellness approaches are now part of VA standard medical benefits, which, at least in the VA, address the current barriers of payment for these treatments. Chiropractic has long been included in the standard of care, but this policy means that other therapies that have published evidence meeting the evidentiary bar will be covered by the VA, he noted. “That doesn’t mean we are there yet,” Kligler added. “There is a huge amount of cost and work yet to be done and the list is not yet hard and fast, but it does mean the VA is committed to cover therapies that demonstrate this evidence.”