VA addresses concerns, future plans at Townhall Meeting

VA Central California Health Care System (VACCHCS). (Photo courtesy of www.fresno.ucsf.edu)

Leaders of the Veterans Affairs Central California Health Care System held a town hall with veterans July 12 at the Fresno Medical Center to highlight improvements, share future plans and address ongoing concerns.

Health Care System Director Stephen R. Bauman led most of the discussion candidly addressing issues still facing the system despite a growing number of accomplishments. The town halls, held every 90 days, are intended to give veterans facetime with leadership and enhance public opinion of the VA health care system, an important goal for Bauman after national scandals in 2014 left poor impressions of the Veterans Health Administration and many veterans forgoing health care.

“With the negative press going on nationally about VA, my concern, my frustration as a veteran, is that means some veteran out there is not coming to the VA to seek care that they need,” Baumann said. “That’s wrong, so that’s why we need to get the story out get the information out, kind of get past the headlines, so we get the veterans into the VA to get the care they need. I lose sleep over that.”

Bauman said access to care is one of the areas in which VA Central California has made the biggest improvements. The system has reached several benchmarks for providing better access including same day access for primary care and mental health, a wait time of around 9 days for completed specialty care appointments and a 97 percent completion rate of all appointments within 30 days.

“There is a goal nationally for all of the facilities across the nation to get to same day access for primary care and mental health, and they need to achieve that by the end of the calendar year,” Bauman said. “Well we’re already there and have been for a while, and we’ve actually been recognized for that. That’s really kudos to the staff here and the hard work that’s gone on to achieve that goal.”

Bauman credited much of the VA Central California’s success to staff and community support.

“The support that we have for our veterans in Fresno and the whole Central Valley area is really remarkable,” Bauman said. “I’ve attended quite a few events out in the community, most recently with Congressman Valadao out in Lemoore and it was standing room only. Again just phenomenal support, so thank you very much.”

A developing board will bring additional community engagement to the local VA system. Central California is setting up a MyVA Community Engagement Board based off similar, successful organizations like one in San Diego that has enhanced veterans’ lives in many ways.

“I went to San Diego and participated in the engagement down there and it was widely supported, and it really is a remarkable group of veterans service organizations and community leaders coming together for the purpose of supporting veterans,” Bauman said. “I’m really jazzed about this.”

Bauman said the board will be run by veterans and he is excited to see what may come from increased engagement. One of the biggest benefits Bauman saw in San Diego was the coordination of calendars across all veteran service organizations to avoid conflicting events.

The new community board is not the only planned improvement at VA Central California, Bauman also announced plans to enhance parking and other construction projects.

“The land purchase that we have been working on so diligently, we have acquired that land,” Bauman said. “As of last month we have acquired nine acres of land that is specifically for parking. We will begin working on improvements to that land to offset the parking crunch we have here on campus.”

Bauman said a shuttle system will be put into service between the new area for parking and the medical center.

Chief Engineer Travis Horn explained further a number of other construction projects, some ongoing and a few still in planning stages.

“One of the first projects you can see is our chiller plant expansion, we expect completion in October,” Horn said. “A very important project for us as a campus, the chiller building is what provides cooling, and obviously, living in Fresno, everyone is aware of the importance of cooling.”

Other projects already underway included renovations to the seventh floor to add a sleep lab and a new X-ray room expanding imaging capabilities. A few pending projects encompassed equipment and infrastructure updates, opening areas up for more beds and expanding the community living center.

Outside of physical improvements Bauman also touched on changes in the VA approach to health care involving the new “whole health” philosophy.

“What you’re gonna start seeing when you come see your providers is there going to start asking some strange questions,” Bauman said. “Like, ‘what do you want out of this health care? What do you want out of the VA? How can we help you in your health care?’ This is a wholesale change to how we provide care, it is really embracing the veteran as a partner in developing the care plan.”

Bauman said the move towards “whole health” will help in areas of pain management and overall care. He called this new approach an example of the VA leading the way in health care.

The VA Central California’s many improvements are not enough however to meet all the areas where health care for veterans falls short. The crowd of veterans at the town hall even served as an example of an imbalance in the health care system, where for every success story there is one of failure.

“Although we’re doing quite well as compared to other facilities across the nation, who are still facing challenges, we still have our own challenges,” Bauman said. “Still we aren’t meeting everyone’s needs, but in time we want to.”

Some of the shortcomings in care go further than the VA, and despite programs like VA Community Care and Choice, which allow veterans to get care outside of the VA system when it is not available, there are still gaps in coverage.

“Certain areas we have like rheumatology, dermatology, optometry, those are areas we still struggle with, but I can tell you that’s not just an internal struggle, even with the Choice program, there’s a deficit of that resource in the community,” Bauman said. “So it’s not just VA that has those gaps, it’s also in the community.”

During a Q-and-A session, U.S. Army veteran Joe Mancillas said he has had a number of issues with dropped appointments at the VA medical center either because of glitches in the computer system or what he believes is a communication failure.

“Lots of things need to be squared up at the VA,” Mancillas said.

Mancillas brought up issues associated with areas of weakness in community coverage. Chief of Medicine Dr. Regina Godbout said the VA is aware that several specialities are not covered by the VA or in Central California. Godbout said she has made it her mission to draw more specialists to the area so veterans will no longer have to travel as far as San Francisco or Los Angeles for care.

So far, Godbout said she has worked to increase partnerships with the local UCSF extension and to recruit highly specialized and talented physicians.

“My cardiologist is the star of the valley,” Godbout said. “We took him from CRMC [Community Regional Medical Center] and they were like crying and said that we have the best here now. So, whatever you need to have done is in real time now in cardiology.”

For veterans still facing challenges there was mention of utilizing advocates like the two on-site affiliated with Disabled American Veterans. Outside of the town hall at an information fair DAV service officer Mario Flores, a retired Marine, said he works to provide services and benefits to veterans, their spouses and their dependents.

“I had a passion to serve because I’m a veteran and I understand the challenges of claims,” Flores said. “Our organization is veterans helping veterans. From our forefathers to the present, we’re always recognizing and honoring service.”

Flores said the DAV works with all veterans regardless of branch of service at no charge. He said they also strive to provide services to female veterans who often encounter different issues. Cristina Vaxter works as a service officer alongside Flores often handling female veterans’ cases.

“It’s easier for a woman veteran to talk to another woman veteran,” Vaxter said. “Especially in cases of sexual trauma or anything personal like that. We do everything we can to make veterans comfortable, we find that they open up more when the environment is welcoming.”

Vaxter said it is imperative for veterans to be honest and thorough when sharing their problems so they can receive all of the care they need.

Overall, in the face of challenges VA Central California has maintained a proactive attitude, which has left behind a history of improvement. Some veterans have been around to see those changes. Korean War Veteran and Purple Heart recipient Henry Lemay said he has seen it all in the over 40 years he’s been involved with the Fresno Medical Center.

“I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum,” Lemay said. “I worked at this hospital as an engineer, but back then it was called carpentry, and I’ve been a patient.”

Lemay who sang the national anthem at the start of the town hall said the hospital was more like a small village when he first began working there.

“All the doctors and nurses knew everyone and treated the veterans like family,” Lemay said. “Things have changed, there’s a lot more people now so it has gotten a little more impersonal, but they are still providing great care.”