In 2016, the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System hired more providers; was able to open up more patient beds; and made strides in focusing on whole health and patient-centered health care, said Anthony Dawson, the system’s director, in his annual State of the System address Thursday.
In 2017, it will focus on continuing to hire, continuing to manage wait times for veteran patients and moving its approach to whole health and patient-centered care from a pilot program to a sustainable and scientific approach, Dawson said.
“We realize there is more to do. Anyone who thinks we’ve reached the mountaintop obviously doesn’t believe in continuous improvement and here at Gulf Coast VA, we believe in continuous improvement.”
Still, he added, the state of the system is “very, very strong. Not perfect, but definitely strong.”
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Six things in particular stood out from his speech:
1. Wait times: “Let’s talk about access,” he said. “The big elephant in the room; the red-button topic for the last several years across the entire VA, and we have worked diligently in making sure we have access.”
Within the Coast VA system, 97 percent of patients were seen within 30 days of their requested appointment time in 2016. In Biloxi, that number jumps to 98.3 percent. About 94 percent of patients seeking specialty care were seen within 30 days and 96 percent of patients seeking mental-health care were seen within a month.
According to VA numbers, the average wait time for primary care is six days, for specialty care is five days and for mental health is six days.
2. New hires: Applause followed Dawson’s pronouncement that “I’ve hired more providers.
“This means more doctors, more nurses, more mental-health professionals. It’s a work in progress.”
The Coast VA system hired 376 employees in 2016, spread among the five properties.
He also said despite the federal hiring freeze, the VA would be able to hire more providers in 2017.
“Last year, I talked about how difficult it is to bring providers on staff,” he said. “We’re bringing them on now.”
3. More beds: Last year, a number of beds were temporarily taken out of service — meaning fewer spots available to patients — because of staffing. The VA has been able to reopen 12 of those acute-care and mental-health care beds and will continue to do so in 2017, Dawson said.
4. Whole health and patient-centered care: In 2016, The Coast VA implemented whole health and patient-centered care to better deal with the full range of needs for its patients. The system was a leader in rolling it out. And looking forward to 2017, it will have a more scientific approach, Dawson said. That includes establishing priorities, guidelines and a method for measuring success; looking at social, economic and cultural factors that affect veterans’ ability to access health care; consistently identifying barriers; continuing to establish and strengthen partnerships with the community, volunteers and the media; and focusing on outreach to high-risk populations.
5. Reaching people: Dawson spoke about reaching out to veterans at risk of suicide, and those who are homeless. Staff members also will take into account patients’ financial challenges and help with things such as transportation or even shelter if needed.
“We remain in a proactive state of mind and must keep a sense of urgency when it comes to care,” he said.
6. Integrated services: Though the Coast VA system, obviously, focuses on health care, Dawson said he has striven to make it as easy as possible for patients to access all the services and benefits offered. At his town halls, including several in 2016, he invited representatives from the veterans benefits administration and from other VA programs to allow veterans to access those services in one place. And in 2016, the system came up with easier ways for patients to get medical information and to help complete the forms necessary to qualify for disability.
“Veterans see us as one VA, not three programs,” Dawson said. “We need to create a seamless experience for veterans.”