Innovation Revolutionary is a regular series from the VHA Innovation Ecosystem focusing on VA employees who are disrupting the status-quo, breaking down barriers and attempting to radically revolutionize Veteran care and the employee experience.
Beth Dinges believes in questioning rules that restrict access that make it more difficult for vulnerable populations to access VA care and resources. Dinges was working as a clinical pharmacist in Danville, Illinois, when a patient asked a question that would change the trajectory of her VA career.
The Veteran asked for sterile syringes, only to be denied care and turned away. Having previous experience working to combat the opioid epidemic, she found the solution to the problem: a Syringe Service Program (SSP).
Following a successful launch of the new SSP in Danville, Dinges turned to the VHA Innovation Ecosystem to scale her project. The SSP was deemed a Diffusion of Excellence Promising Practice, as one of ten 2021 VHA Shark Tank competition winners. She immediately paired with Boston VA to get to work.
Shifting mindsets on Veteran care
Understanding the principles of harm reduction, as it relates to Veterans with substance use disorder, was crucial in developing a program many consider taboo. Many Veterans do not want to ask for sterile syringes as the stigma surrounding substance use disorder often reduces willingness to seek care. They are always pleasantly surprised to learn they can be provided by VA.
Dinges set out to create a program, not with the goal of abstinence, but to empower Veterans to access resources that will increase their safety and well-being. She wanted people to understand that providing sterile syringes for Veterans who inject substances doesn’t increase substance use or overdose rates. She shared her passion about the importance of meeting Veterans where they are, rather than where anyone else expects them to be, and that “Veterans are deserving of care, no matter where they are on the continuum of drug use.”
Shattering the status quo
Before VA established the three current SSPs (there will soon be 20), Dinges experienced several obstacles in her revolutionary journey that would teach her important lessons. She didn’t let “It’s always been done this way” answers stop her. Instead, she kept asking, “Why?”
Her tenacious dedication to providing access to safe resources for stigmatized Veterans debunked misinformation and elevated the SSP nationally, as part of the medical benefits package. The desire to create holistic care kept her hopes alive, no matter the challenge. “This mindset is what makes me feel alive and gives me a sense of purpose at work,” she said.
The innovator in you
Innovating and creating comprehensive care programs for VA over the past 16 years has sparked a renewed passion for Dinges and enabled Veterans to make progress on their journey toward healthier living.
Want to support VA IE’s innovation revolution? Visit our website to learn about opportunities to become involved in innovation at VA.