Research has consistently identified remarkably high rates of addiction, mental illness, and health problems in the homeless population.1-9 Yet in spite of extensive service needs for these problems, abundant evidence exists of consistent underuse of health care services by homeless populations.10-12 Most of the homeless population reside in emergency shelters or in transitional or supportive housing, but many remain in places not meant for human habitation.
Homelessness is significantly overrepresented among military veterans.13 The January 2016 national point-in-time count identified 39,471 veterans experiencing homelessness.13 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seem to have an especially high risk for homelessness.13-15 Disheartening statistics such as these prompted former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to pledge to end veteran homelessness by December 2015.16 He argued in support of this mission that 85% of veteran homeless resources go to health care—implying that homelessness among veterans is primarily a health care issue, which is heavily burdened by substance abuse and other psychiatric and medical illnesses.17
Health care service use has been associated with improved health, mental health, and outcomes among homeless populations.12,18 Unfortunately, access to these services is limited by barriers associated with homelessness, such as transportation or lack of proper identification.19,20 Veterans experiencing homelessness also face these common barriers to health care, and unsheltered veterans especially underutilize VA health care services.21
Housing First—a successful model that places individuals into housing without prerequisites for sobriety, active participation in treatment, or other behavioral accomplishments, such as gainful employment—has not managed yet to place all the disengaged homeless veteran population into stable housing.22 However, the Housing First model, which is based on the individual’s priorities, is consistent with the approach of a new program at the VA North Texas Health Care System (VANTHCS).
The VHA, similar to other health care systems, is engaged in a cultural transformation to convert its health care approach from a traditional medical model to patient-centered care (PCC).23 In this priority area, a strategic objective is for the VHA to partner with each veteran to create a personalized, proactive strategy to optimize health and well-being and when needed provide state-of-the-art disease management. Patient-centered care is designed to address veterans’ specific needs in spiritual, environmental, physical, mental, and social domains and empower veterans to become active participants in their care. Patient-centered care differs from the traditional medical model in that patients are active participants in their treatment, partnering and collaborating with their providers on care that is quality-of-life centered instead of disease centered.23 This model is based on both respect for patients as unique individuals and on the obligation to care for them on their own terms, focused on their self-identified goals and aspirations.24
At VANTHCS, the Homeless Mobile Medical/Mental Veteran (HMMM-V) pilot program was designed to deliver effective health care services to a homeless subpopulation of veterans who historically have been the most difficult to serve—those living in unsheltered environments, such as under bridges and in encampments. The purpose of the HMMM-V program was to contact and serve veterans not currently being reached by the VA system of care, using a PCC model.
This pilot program was initially funded in January 2013 by a 2-year grant from the Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation to apply the PCC approach to engage veteran participation. For this project, the VA Personal Health Inventory tool—originally designed for use with the general veteran population—was adapted for use with the homeless veteran population. The grant funding period covered the design, development, and implementation of the HMMM-V program; thereafter, VANTHCS provided resources through its Comprehensive Homeless Center Programs to assure its sustainability and continued use of the clinical assessment tool created for this project.
This article describes the development and implementation of this novel program with sufficient detail to inform the development of similar programs in other sites. Descriptions of the program and staffing, creation of community partnerships, and modification of an assessment instrument are provided. It also illustrates the original implementation period of the HMMM-V program through presentation of self-reported data on the first homeless veterans it served.
Equipment and Staffing
A custom 28-foot mobile outreach vehicle was assembled according to specifications identified by the HMMM-V team as necessary to conduct the program’s interventions. The van became fully operational on April 8, 2015, after it underwent all the required reviews and inspections (eg, safety, infection control, etc) and was accredited in 2015 by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.
The HMMM-V van has a driver compartment that is separate from its services rooms, which include a patient registration area, a fully equipped examination room, a laboratory area, and a bathroom. The vehicle is equipped with a wheelchair lift and an awning to shade outdoor areas where tables and chairs are set up for patient/staff waiting and rest areas. The vehicle is stocked with essential equipment and supplies needed to conduct work in off-street locations, vacant lots, under bridges, fields, unpaved paths, etc. It also is equipped with telemedicine capabilities to provide clinical supervision and access to attending physicians and specialists at VANTHCS. Personnel carry cell phones and laptop computers with secure Internet connections using a commercially available mobile wireless Wi-Fi hotspot to facilitate documentation of medical records and communication from the field.
This reliable type of equipment is routine for use in VA field operations; the only hurdle using these technologies for the program was acquiring funding and purchasing the equipment. The vehicle is further equipped with a refrigerator solely for secure storage of pharmaceutical supplies, a second refrigerator for specimens, and wall-mounted blood pressure and otoscope/ophthalmoscope units. The vehicle is supplied with thermometers, scales, phlebotomy supplies, and first-aid kits and is stocked with vaccines and medications, including antibiotic, hypertensive, diabetic, allergy, and over-the-counter pain medications. A more comprehensive list of supplies for the vehicle is available from the authors on request.
Medication provisions supplied to the HMMM-V mobile clinic conform to the Texas State Board of Pharmacy compliance regulations. Because the vehicle is designated as federal property and has U.S. government license plates, it is considered an extension of VANTHCS Pharmacy Service and falls under its pharmacy license. A medication formulary was created with input from HMMM-V prescribers and Dallas VAMC Pharmacy Service pharmacists. To safeguard the integrity of these pharmaceutical agents, the HMMM-V physician assistant picks up the medications before field deployment and returns the unused medications to the Dallas VAMC at the end of the day. The medications are transported in locked containers and placed either in a locked medication refrigerator or cabinet on the mobile unit.
For medication prescriptions that need laboratory testing before prescribing them, HMMM-V prescribers can check the VA electronic medical record from the field to determine whether these tests have been completed recently. If not, then HMMM-V team has an agreement with Dallas VA Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service for testing samples obtained in the field.
The program was designed for staffing of the vehicle by 2 professional teams, each includes medical (physician’s assistant or registered nurse), mental health (psychiatrist, residents), and social work providers (licensed social workers, clinical social workers); trainees of these disciplines; a peer support specialist; and an administrative clerk. The staffing varies daily, depending on available personnel. When personnel deploy to the field, they go in pairs or groups to address potential safety issues. Cell phones are available to summon police or ambulance services in an emergency. Systematic safety training was conducted with all field personnel before their first deployment to guard against vulnerability to danger in these settings.
Once in the field, personnel engage unsheltered homeless individuals to assess eligibility for VA services. Veterans found ineligible are assisted with application for military discharge upgrade, service-connected compensation, or appeal for health care coverage. Veterans eligible for VA care receive physical examinations, vital and glucose checks, influenza and pneumonia vaccinations, first-aid skin and wound care, medication management with limited medications provided at point of care, blood and urine testing, peer support services, suicide assessments, clinical mental health evaluations, and social work services through the HMMM-V program.
Social work assistance provided includes psychosocial assessment and care coordination for psychosocial needs such as mental health, substance abuse, vision, dental, housing, employment, legal aid, transportation, food, income, hygiene, and weather-appropriate provision needs.