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Thu, April 18

VA gives progress report to veterans
Town hall updates staff, program changes

This May 2, 2014, photo shows the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System hospital in Prescott. (Courier file photo)

This May 2, 2014, photo shows the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System hospital in Prescott. (Courier file photo)

Only about a handful of veterans attended a Prescott VA Town Hall meeting on Wednesday, but the medical facility’s officials shared updates on everything from construction to campus hires.

Medical Center Director Barbara Oemcke was clear she wants to keep veterans informed about issues that concern them, be it the timeliness of replacing top administrators, processing claims to upgraded call center technology to better respond to veteran phone calls. She said the forum was intended to offer veterans a chance to share concerns and be referred to appropriate campus resources.

The recent departures of two top VA administrators — Chief of Staff Dr. M. Keith Piatt and Dr. Kerri Wilhoite, an associate director and nurse executive — and at least a dozen other mid-level management positions prompted a lot of questions among staff and veterans alike in the last couple months. Oemcke explained that the VA’s regional office is actively recruiting for those positions, and already has interim staff working at the VA to cover at least some of those vacancies.

One of this VA’s biggest challenges is recruiting and retaining top talent when nationally established salaries do not properly account for the high cost of living in this region, Oemcke said.

“We are working hard this year on what we can do to promote employee retention,” Oemcke said, noting a renewed focus on hiring existing local talent and seeking better pay equity suitable to this region.

Resources for 2019 are expected to improve, and Oemcke said her administrative team is committed to showcasing the resources expected by veterans so they can garner, and enhance, such services. She said the local VA will be getting two new care teams – a four-person team headed by a physician – to assist with patient loads, she said.

MyHealthyVet was also promoted as an online tool that veterans can use for everything from scheduling appointments to ordering prescriptions.

As for processing medical claims to community care providers, veterans heard from top-level staff that the local VA may benefit from a trip to a Michigan VA facility where they were introduced to a new automated system that will eliminate backups. In addition, the CHOICE program is becoming more responsive to veteran’ needs for referrals so that they can now be done in a couple of days rather than requiring waits of a couple weeks.

Steve Kohls, an Army Vietnam veteran who attended the forum, said he was impressed that when he needed an eye specialist a month ago — after a superior response at the VA’s emergency room – he got an immediate referral. In addition, he said, the doctor he first saw him called him just two hours after he returned home to check on his welfare.

“No doctor has ever done that in my whole life,” Kohls said. “I have nothing but good to say about the VA here.”

Emergency room nurse manager Paul Weaver gave an overview of that department’s operations and standards, and the response times it is able to provide.

The emergency room has 11 beds and 11 doctors with an additional 25 staff and 22 volunteers, he said.

Based on national VA standards, Weaver said, the local VA is close to meeting those goals, in particular the door-to-doctor goal of 25 minutes – the VA is now averaging 26 minutes – and the diagnosis timeliness of 150 minutes; the VA is at 159 minutes for the last quarter, Weaver said.

The anticipated average patient quota for the year is 14,000, and Weaver said the facility already has seen 13,500 veterans, so it likely will exceed that number.

“We appreciate what you’ve done for us, and we want to be here for you,” Weaver said to the attending veterans and their families.

“We have work to do. But if you have an issue, we are committed to making it better,” Oemcke concluded.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.

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