University Behavioral Health Care’s Veterans Total Care Initiative connects New Jersey vets directly with hospitals and doctors’ offices

Veterans can wait months to years for an initial appointment for heath care. With the Rutgers initiative, veterans can get an appointment as early as the same day.

To expedite the health care process for New Jersey’s estimated 400,000 veterans, Rutgers University has launched a program to facilitate timely medical and behavioral health care and peer support.

The initiative comes on the heels of a recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general that revealed that about 307,000 veterans might have died while their health care enrollment was pending.

Veterans Total Care Initiative, a six-month pilot program supported by a $5 million grant from the New Jersey Department of Health, is the first service of its kind to provide integrated care to veterans.

“People in need of medical care need it now, not three months from now,” says Major General Mark Graham (ret.), senior director of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care National Call Center, which operates the program along with Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and New Jersey Medical School. “They don’t want to be told to go to a website. They want a live person to help them navigate the process, minimize paperwork and cut through the bureaucracy.”

The call center, which manages three 24/7 peer support lines for veterans and military personnel and their families, offers this resource to veterans who need health care and call 866-838-7654.

The initiative is unique in that it provides integrated care: Peer counselors assist veterans in setting up expedited appointments for primary or behavioral health care and provide follow-up support. “Since many of the veterans who call are anxious and have needs beyond health care, the peer support component is essential,” says Graham. “The peer counselors, who are veterans themselves, can alleviate their anxiety and assure them they will stay with them through the entire process.”

When veterans call seeking assistance for primary or behavioral health care, a peer support specialist will discuss their current needs and then work with the caller on various options.  “Many people who have served in the armed forces may not have insurance or qualify for services at the VA,” says Terrell McCain, a peer counselor and Iraq veteran who said close to 20 veterans were assisted in the first week. “We stay on the line to help the caller complete the application if necessary.”

When the appointment is ready to be made, peer counselors never put veterans on hold but remain on the line while connecting them to a representative at one of the participating Rutgers-operated facilities at New Jersey Medical School in Newark, Robert Wood Johnson Medical Group in New Brunswick and University Behavioral Health Care in Newark and Piscataway. They also connect callers in the state’s southern counties to clinics at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and Kennedy University Hospital in Cherry Hill.

Veterans can get an appointment within a few days and sometimes even on the same day. “It is all about the veterans – a team effort,” says McCain.

The initiative will not only help veterans receive faster appointments, but also will assist in getting vets the number of appointments they need. “A veteran who is enrolled in the VA might only be able to get one appointment a month when they need them weekly,” says McCain. “We work with the clinics to ensure that veterans get the necessary care.”

After the initial call, the peer counselor stays in touch with the veteran by placing a reminder call the day before the appointment; they also follow up to discuss the veteran’s experience, what happens next and how they can help.

As part of the initiative, peer counselors also offer support with non-medical issues such as financial, housing or employment concerns. “Sometimes, callers just want to vent,” McCain says. “We’re here for that, too.”

For more information, contact Patti Verbanas at 848-932-0551 or