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Gulf Coast VA Chief Outlines Changes To Improve Access

By Evelina Burnett | Published 14 Jul 2014 06:26pm | comments

The head of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System says he's put in place changes to help improve veterans' access to health care.

Valentina Stilwell of Biloxi lost her husband Gary, a Vietnam veteran, last year. Diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2012, he applied to the VA for medical help in January 2013.

Stilwell says though her husband had care elsewhere, they hoped for assistance with some needed medication.

"His appointment was made for September 30. He passed away September 2," she says. "Would the medical treatment been different? I don't know. Would the outcome have been different? I don't know. I only know that he's gone."

Cases like the Stilwells are part of what has driven the VA to its current crisis point, leading to the resignation of Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki earlier this year.

The Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System has also faced scrutiny. This week, the system's director, Anthony Dawson, told MPB News about the changes he's made to cut wait times and improve access for veterans.

"The systems are in place," he says. "They were not being properly utilized, I'll be the first to say that. But through this discovery, we've made a lot of corrections."

Among his changes: daily reports on wait lists and one-on-one and group meetings with scheduling clerks, as well as increased oversight.

Dawson says he's increased hiring and is also looking at ways to improve hiring in hard-to-find specialty fields. In the last quarter, the Gulf Coast VA hired 96 new employees in Biloxi and its clinics in Alabama and Florida.

Dawson says he's getting daily reports on electronic wait lists and new enrollee appointment requests, known as NEAR. He's also meeting with scheduling clerks and improving training. 

"In order to make sure that people understand the flow for NEAR," he says, "understand when to transfer people from one report to the other, understand how we're supposed to communicate with the veterans, whether it's through phone calls or letters in order to get their appointment."

On Monday, there were 665 veterans on the electronic wait list, and 21 veterans on the new enrollee appointment request list. Although Dawson cautions that these numbers change daily, this does seem to reflect some improvement, particularly on the new enrollee side. As recently as June 9, there were 1,373 new enrollee appointment requests in the Gulf Coast VA (the number reflects the total number of newly enrolled veterans who have requested an appointment but have not yet been scheduled. 

The electronic wait list (EWL) reflects the total number of new patients who can't get appointments in 90 days or less. That number has increased since June, when it stood at 409. As the VA schedules more appointments, it's also seen wait times increase - as of July 3, 16% of appointments were scheduled over 30 days, compared to 6 percent in June. 

New wait time numbers are expected later this week. (See the VA's twice monthly updates on access for more details.)

James Corley is the commander of the Biloxi post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He says once veterans get into the system, they're usually pleased with the health care they receive. The trouble, often, is getting a foot in the door.

"The overall problem is the red tape and not knowing what you're qualified for and what you're not," he says. "But the care at the Biloxi VA is impeccable."

The Gulf Coast VA system provided health care to 55,000 veterans last year, Dawson says, and is on track to serve 70,000 veterans this year 

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