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Director: Coast VA 'remains very strong'

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Anthony Dawson director of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System facility in Biloxi on Monday Aug. 3, 2015.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Anthony Dawson director of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System facility in Biloxi on Monday Aug. 3, 2015. SUN HERALD

After a turbulent 2014, the following brought both challenges and successes to the Gulf Coast Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, said Director Anthony Dawson during his annual State of the System address.

In the 18 months since a scandal over hospital and clinic wait times broke out within the veterans health system, starting in Arizona, officials on the Gulf Coast -- and nationwide -- have worked both to fix the problem and to regain the public trust.

Dawson said he was focused on looking forward as well, to improvements and innovations in how the system delivers care and interacts with its clients.

Here are four things to know about the state of the Gulf Coast Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.

More VA patients

More veterans are coming to the VA for health care and each veteran is seeking more care. The Gulf Coast VA had about 1 million patient encounters in 2015, 57,000 more than in 2014. According to numbers from November, 97 percent of patients were seen within 30 days.

That number is better than the 94 percent in June, but about even with the 96 percent from November 2014. That's because even as staffers work harder to see patients more quickly and efficiently, there have been more patients.

"We have indeed become victims of our own success," Dawson said.

More staffers

To deal with the growing numbers, Dawson said he's hired 437 new staffers, including 35 physicians and 102 nurses. He's also sought ways to speed the hiring process.

In the next year, he will hire one "floating team" for each hospital in the system so they can stay fully staffed, even as doctors and nurses take sick days or vacations. That will mean fewer canceled appointments, he said.

Several hospitals are building additions or doing renovations so they can treat more patients. Biloxi undergoing a major renovation to add beds in the acute-care center.

Transparency is the plan

Transparency and community involvement are a centerpiece of Dawson's plan for 2016.

In 2014, the system spent $69 million paying for care in the community. It 2015, that number was $80 million. The Veterans CHOICE Act was also implemented, allowing veterans who meet certain conditions to receive care outside the VA.

At the same time, Dawson has been holding regular town hall meetings with stakeholders and making time for face-to-face conversations with patients and families.

"Our mission is delivering excellent, patient-centered care," he said. "Transparency was always my position but especially since Phoenix."

VA actively innovating

Dawson doesn't just have the Gulf Coast system playing defense from the scandal. The system is actively innovating to provide better care. It will even have a staff member in charge of innovation.

Some things are simple. The Gulf Coast system is one of three selected to participate in a pilot phone program that allows delivery of care by telephone. It's simple, and it leaves staff more time for patients who must come to the VA.

It is one of eight programs in the country to participate in a pilot program for general innovation.

"Embracing innovation is key," Dawson said. "The changes we're seeing across the world are breathtaking and in health care it's even faster. We're striving for innovation to become part of our DNA."

The status of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, Dawson said, "remains very strong."

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