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Aug. 19, 2022

MSU collaboration to improve health care support for rural veterans

Leaders from the Michigan State University College of Education and the Michigan Center for Rural Health are partnering on a project to support rural veterans with and without disabilities. The Improving Rural Enrollment, Access and Healthcare in Rural Veterans, or I-REACH Project, aims to improve access to needed health care services and better the coordination of care.  

“Reaching rural veterans to support their health and well-being through this federal grant fits perfectly with Michigan State’s long-standing outreach mission and priorities expressed in our strategic plan,” MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D., said. “Additionally, MSU is proud to consistently earn top rankings as a veteran-friendly university from the Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency, offering numerous programs and resources to serve students who are veterans.” 

“Michigan supports safe, effective research and outreach programs that improve the lives of our veterans and their families,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.  “Our service members put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, and we must ensure they have the support they need when they come home. It is vitally important that we support all of our veterans, especially our underserved veteran populations. This includes making sure they have access to quality, affordable health care and mental health services throughout Michigan.” 

More than 500,000 veterans live in Michigan. According to Emre Umucu, assistant professor in the College of Education and principal investigator for the project, more than 30% of Michigan’s veterans live in rural areas and may have difficulties in accessing health care services. Moreover, this population may also experience barriers to internet access, fewer transportation options and limited availability of specialty health care near their geographic area.  

“Rural veterans in Michigan are an underserved population facing unique challenges,” said Umucu. “They routinely access care from multiple locations and can be included in several health care systems, such as through Veterans Affairs or other community providers. I-REACH will streamline and improve the processes to ensure quality, consistent care.”

I-REACH will focus on two distinct areas of Michigan: the Upper Peninsula (15 counties) and the Thumb region of Michigan (Huron, Tuscola and Sanilac counties). The three-year, nearly $900,000 project is funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

To facilitate the work, Umucu and colleagues will debut a new intervention program called WE ARE RURAL HEROES. Among other critical areas, the training program is projected to include strategies on how to: 

  • Improve health care access. 
  • Advocate for health care rights.
  • Cope with stress, adversity and other challenging moments in life.
  • Understand what benefits are offered and in what circumstances benefits may be affected. 

WE ARE RURAL HEROES is in the process of being developed. Umucu and colleagues are building a community advisory board consisting of veterans, caregivers, clinicians and policymakers to identify challenges, barriers and needs of rural veterans. Project leaders will use that feedback to create interventions, programming and support systems.  

“Our goal is to reach as many rural veterans as we can,” said Umucu, also director of MSU’s Veteran Well-Being Lab. His research focuses on improving psychosocial adjustments, well-being and quality of life for veterans, including those with disabilities.  

Joining as project directors are John Barnas and Crystal Barter from the Michigan Center for Rural Health. MCRH serves as the Michigan State Office of Rural Health, a nonprofit organization and an MSU affiliate. It is supported by Dean Andrea Amalfitano of the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, who serves on the MCRH board of directors. 

“The Michigan Center for Rural Health has a long history of working with Michigan rural residents and health care providers. We are excited to embark on a new partnership with the MSU College of Education to support rural veterans and increase their access to care in two unique geographic regions of the state,” said Barnas, MCRH executive director. 

Faculty from the College of Education include Beatrice Lee and Gloria Lee as co-principal investigators and Hung Jen Kuo, Andrew Nay and Connie Sung as co-investigators. All are faculty members with Umucu in MSU’s top-ranked rehabilitation counseling programs.  

Additional collaborations and consultations will come from the Iowa City Veterans Rural Health Resource Center; the Florida Blue Center for Rural Health Research Center; the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency; the MSU Student Veterans Resource Center; the Veterans Affairs Homelessness Research Center; Dartmouth College; University of Wisconsin-Madison; University of Michigan; University of Texas-Tyler; the VA VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans; and health facilities that are designated rural access hospitals.  

By: Lauren Knapp

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