VA promises more accountability at Charlie Norwood for quality veterans care at town hall meeting

The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center will become more accessible and “accountable” for providing veterans with quality care as it seeks to prevent the scourge of veteran suicides and strives to be the provider of “choice” for them, VA officials said Thursday at a town hall event.

 

Some, however, said they aren’t so sure.

VA officials outline a number of improvements planned for the Augusta facilities in both veteran and employee satisfaction, interim medical center director Robin Jackson said.

“Those are two areas we’ve got to improve on,” he said. Part of that has to do with being able to get in for timely care, something the medical center has struggled with in the past.

“Access is something we want to work on and improve,” Jackson said. “We want to get to not just same day access, but we want to have open access to where any veteran who wants to come at any time can get that appointment and we’re working hard to actually get there.”

The VA must also compete with other providers on quality and the Augusta facilities earned a two star rating under the VA’s quality assessment system, which was actually an improvement on its previous one-star rating, he said.

“But that’s not the potential of Charlie Norwood. Charlie Norwood should really be a five-star facility,” Jackson said.

Under the Choice Program, veterans can use their benefits to seek care in the community so the VA has to compete to be their preferred provider, said Leslie Wiggins, director of the VISN 7 Network that includes VA facilities in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

“Choice is to give you guys a greater choice about where you want to get your health care, what kind of care you want, when you want it, where you want it,” she said. “If our quality goes down, veterans should be able to go to the place that does it the best.”

It’s also one reason VAs are building up networks of community providers to be able to provide those choices, Wiggins said.

But offers to cover community care didn’t ring true to Brandie Taylor, a five-year Army veteran sitting in the audience.

A year and a half ago, after she was in a bad car accident, she was diverted from the VA to AU Medical Center and racked up a $19,000 bill that so far the VA has not covered, and she is still getting calls about from collection agencies.

When she couldn’t get care at the VA, “I just paid for my own neck surgery out-of-pocket,” Taylor said, another $22,000.

As far as choice goes, “I don’t buy it because I’ve incurred more debt” seeking care elsewhere.

At Wiggins’ urging, a number of VA representatives came by Taylor’s chair during the meeting offering to help resolve her problem.

The VA is also vowing to do a better job on suicide prevention – there’s an average of 20 veteran suicides a day – and recently launched the REACH Vet program, she said.

That includes using predictive modeling to help identify those who might be at higher risk of suicide, studying the records of actual suicides in aggregate for common patterns or trends, and increasing screening, particularly for symptoms of depression and PTSD.

That is now done in primary care clinics by nurses as part of the routine appointment and there is a psychologist on hand in the clinic who can respond if needed, said Lisa Gerardot, suicide prevention coordinator. “I think there are more opportunities for access than maybe people are taking advantage of or are aware of,” she said.

The new initiative “gives us a call to action to make sure that we are really thorough in reviewing their care and reaching out to them proactively,” Gerardot said.

Of those 20 daily suicides, only six on average are receiving care at a VA, which might be for a number of reasons, including not having an honorable discharge, she said.

The VA recently began offering emergency medical services for 90 days to those with less than an honorable discharge, Gerardot said.

“That gives us time to get whatever crisis is afoot stabilized and then get them transitioned to community care,” Gerardot said.

 

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com

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