Visiting Nurses Association celebrates 50 years of serving Douglas County

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Caroline Cramer, a nurse with Visiting Nurses Association, listens to Jerry Barnes' heart during a regular visit to his home off North Michigan Street on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

Since his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren relocated about six months ago, 71-year-old Jerry Barnes, a lifelong Lawrence resident, doesn’t really have any family in town.

“They bought a house and moved down to Jenks, Okla., and poor ol’ Grandpa, I’m here all by myself,” he said.

But he’s able to stay in his own home, and that’s significant to him. He said he’s OK with not having someone around to hold his hand — “Just leave me in my environment, you know?”

That wouldn’t be possible for Barnes without the help of Douglas County’s long-running Visiting Nurses Association, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“It’s just been a blessing all the way around. It really has,” Barnes said.

How VNA has grown

From its beginnings in a basement at 342 Missouri St. back in 1969 to its home today at the Community Health Building, VNA has grown considerably.

photo by: Visiting Nurses Association/Contributed Photo

Lyn Rothwell, founder of the Visiting Nurses Association, is shown in this contributed photo from the organization’s early days. The nonprofit officially launched in 1969 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019.

At launch, the staff consisted of four registered nurses; one physical therapist; and four of what were called “homemakers,” at the time — they’re now called certified home health aides, said Cynthia Lewis, the current CEO.

VNA Open House

The public is invited to an open house celebration for the Visiting Nurses Association’s 50th anniversary, scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21 at 200 Maine St. VNA is on the third floor of the Community Health Building.

The staff has grown to 95, and VNA has made more than 1.5 million visits to more than 38,000 patients, according to numbers provided by Lori McSorley, business development manager.

Through the changing times, Lewis said there have been two major constants for the organization.

“VNA, I believe, has a very strongly positive reputation in the community, and because we are the not-for-profit home care and hospice agency, that community support is very important to us,” she said. “It’s very valuable.

“The other thing I believe that has been consistent over the course of time is that culture of community and family, because Lawrence is a larger small town. It still has a very strong community network and connection.”

Bringing care to patients

Visiting patients in their homes provides an entirely different dynamic from a medical setting, Lewis said. Hospital stays tend to be relatively short compared to patients’ relationships with VNA, which oftentimes last many years.

“The staff can become more like a family member,” she said.

One of VNA’s programs is Help at Home. It aims to help people age in place: providing homemaking services, companionship, rides to appointments and such. It’s available on a fee-for-service basis, with many prices listed on the organization’s website,

“Given the choice, most people want to stay in their homes because of the emotional attachment to it,” Lewis said. “It’s the place where we feel most comfortable, particularly if we still have someone else at home. We feel loved. It’s the place where we’ve made memories.”

The agency has also offered a Medicare-certified hospice program since 1981.

Home health care

The organization tends to people of all ages, but more than 77 percent are age 65 and up. Eighty-five percent of patients are Medicare- or Medicaid-eligible, and 15 percent hold private insurance.

Barnes has homebound status, which qualifies him for the agency’s more limited home health services.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Jerry Barnes, 71, of Lawrence, tells stories during a visit with the Visiting Nurses Association on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 at his home off North Michigan Street. He said he got in the habit of wearing his bluetooth earpiece when he drove a truck. “I don’t feel like I’m dressed if I don’t have this thing in my ear,” he said.

“When he leaves, he needs the assistance of another person, and he really can’t function well outside of his own home,” said Caroline Cramer, Barnes’ nurse.

Lewis said Medicare has a very specific definition for “homebound,” and patients must meet that to qualify for home health services. It means that it requires a severe and taxing effort for patients to leave their homes. Patients can still go to appointments and go to the grocery store with assistance, but there’s still a perception of, “Well, I don’t want to be stuck at home,” Lewis said.

“If they really are not able to get out and do their usual activity outside of their home without some sort of assistance, then they probably meet the criteria,” she said. “However, it does sound very restrictive, and so some people are not comfortable with that.”

Barnes spent 47 years on the road, though, driving trucks. He noted that he spent five years going to Colorado and back three times a week — “You know, that’s a long ride.” And it perhaps didn’t lead to the healthiest lifestyle.

“When I was trucking, I probably ate a lot more McDonald’s than I should’ve,” he said.

He had a hip replaced about five years ago and later developed lymphedema, or a buildup of lymph fluid that causes swelling in the arms and legs. He’s also had some other complications, including an infection that left him so weak that he fell in his kitchen and broke his shoulder.

“Old and brittle — everything’s falling apart,” he said, matter-of-factly. “… Thank God Medicare has been really good. They’ve taken care of this stuff, and the VNA has been the best. There’s not anybody down there I dislike.”

The agency has nurses on call 24/7. As a longtime patient — about three years now with VNA — Barnes can reach Cramer when he needs to.

“We have a pretty direct line, as far as communicating goes,” Cramer said.

She visits regularly to draw blood and help with any of Barnes’ medical needs, and he enjoys her company.

“It’s been great, and I wouldn’t be able to do this without the VNA,” Barnes said of staying in his own home and neighborhood.

Looking ahead

VNA has been preparing since 2018 for a major restructure of Medicare reimbursement set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020, Lewis said.

photo by: WW

This contributed photo from 2019 shows Visiting Nurses Association staff. The local nonprofit, established in 1969, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Also, the government and some private insurance companies are transitioning for all health care providers to value-based purchasing, and quantifying the quality of care patients receive.

“We’ve had publicly reported quality measures in home health for several years, and hospice has moved into that arena now, so that’s very different,” Lewis said, noting that she was familiar with that culture from her time working in hospital settings. She also initially came to VNA in December 2008 as quality compliance manager, became chief operating officer in January 2012 and was selected as CEO a year later, following a national search.

“Even if you feel like, and you’re confident, that the care you’re providing is high-quality care, you have data out there that needs to support that,” she said.

She said the agency is also very interested in, and to some degree involved with, local behavioral health initiatives. She said about 15 to 20 percent of VNA’s home health referrals have a co-occurring mental health diagnosis.

“(We’re) always looking with an eye to what is going on in the community that we provide care to, that we need to be part of, and positioning ourselves to do that,” Lewis said.

The public is invited to an open house celebration for the Visiting Nurses Association’s 50th anniversary, scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at 200 Maine St. VNA is on the third floor of the Community Health Building.

Photos: A peek at VNA over the years

photo by: Visiting Nurses Association/Contributed Photo

This contributed photo shows staff of the Visiting Nurses Association in the 1970s. The local nonprofit, founded in 1969, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019.

photo by: Visiting Nurses Association/Contributed Photo

In this contributed photo from the 1980s, a Visiting Nurses Association nurse visits a young patient.

photo by: Visiting Nurses Association/Contributed Photo

In this contributed photo from the 1990s, a physical therapist with Visiting Nurses Association assists a patient.

photo by: Visiting Nurses Association/Contributed Photo

This contributed photo shows Visiting Nurses Association staff from the 2000s.

photo by: Visiting Nurses Association/Contributed Photo

This contributed photo from the 2010s shows Visiting Nurses Association leaders Judy Bellome, Marceil Lauppe and Cynthia Lewis.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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