“How fitting that my last visit to a VA facility is here in Phoenix,” Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said to employees during a town hall on Friday, Jan. 13 at the Phoenix VA Health Care System (PVAHCS). “And I can’t imagine a better place to wind this up but here.”
This visit marked Gibson’s fifth visit to Phoenix in five months as he made good on a promise to make PVAHCS the enterprise priority that it needed to be.
“People asked me – are you sure you want to go to Phoenix?” said Daniel Garcia, a clinical application supervisor in informatics who moved from the Albuquerque VA two years ago. “But I have seen nothing but innovation and progress since I have been here. We have leadership, service chiefs, and staff that know what needs to get done. We still have challenges, but I come to work accepting that challenge everyday.”
New leadership has brought exciting change at Phoenix and that was one of Gibson’s main priorities for PVAHCS – strong, solid and permanent leadership. And he got that with Director RimaAnn Nelson and Chief of Staff Dr. Maureen McCarthy who have been there now going on 10 weeks.
“Remember I can’t fix what I don’t know and we will have open door policies,” said Nelson addressing a question from an employee. “In fact, Dr. McCarthy started this week with open door time for employees from 7-7:45 a.m. everyday. I hope to set an open door time for myself very soon as well.”
Gibson also had the opportunity to meet with a room full of Veteran and congressional stakeholders as well as community partners. Veteran advocate John Mendibles of the American Legion stood up and addressed Gibson directly.
“Throughout the last two years we have seen so much good,” he said. “I say to you chief, thank you, and I give you my blessings as I stand next to you.”
Reggie Yates, of Unified American Veterans, mirrored Mendible’s comment saying, “we appreciate the work you have done to make MyVA, one VA a priority. It made sense to do that and I know you and Secretary McDonald want to do what makes sense.”
Questions were asked about the future of the Choice Program and the issue of consults that was brought up recently in some negative news coverage about PVAHCS.
Gibson said the new chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Phil Roe, has signed off on extending Choice past the Aug. 7 cut off date, at least until the money runs out.
And regarding recent negative media attention regarding consults, Nelson and McCarthy addressed the fact head on.
“With a current average of 45,000 consults a month, we look at our consults, volume and scheduling every single morning,” said Nelson. “We have to keep demand in balance with capacity. We are excited to open two new clinics this year which will help with capacity.”
McCarthy said PVAHCS had 1 million visits last year, and “our priority is our level 1 or urgent care consults. Our goal is to address those immediately. The Office of the Medical Inspector recently reviewed our consults and stated 94 percent of our average 45,000 consults a month are addressed in seven days, our urgent consults are addressed same day.”
Unfortunately, that was not articulated in media coverage this past week about Phoenix consults.
Terry Araman, director of the Madison Street Veterans Association, mentioned that it continues to be “frustrating to hear the negative stories such as the one this week on consults, when we hear and know the good work you are doing here in Phoenix.”
He encouraged Phoenix leadership to share the good news stories to media outlets which Nelson stated she would continue to do and make a priority. A first objective is to arrange an editorial board with the Arizona Republic. “We want to keep the line of communication open with our local media. That is vital.”
“We have made great strides in access here in Phoenix,” said Gibson. “But our wait list will not go away. As we improve access, as we improve the Veteran experience, more Veterans will come to us. But our challenge is ensuring those that need it right away, get it.”
Since Gibson first came to Phoenix in 2014 during the wake of the access crisis, PVAHCS has improved access to care by focusing on increasing staff, space, productivity and use of care in the community.
A few highlights:
- Increased staff by 826 fulltime positions since 2014. Twenty-three of those are primary care physicians and 48 nurses.
- Last year, they completed 130,621 more outpatient visits than they did two years prior and saw 5,707 more unique veterans than they did in 2014.
- Since April 2014, opened two new outpatient clinics in Gilbert and Scottsdale, with two more set to open this January.
- Sharing space with Banner Health to provide additional operating room space and capacity.
- Opened the Homeless Community Referral and Resource Center, 5,000 square foot facility providing services for homeless veterans.
- Renovated and expanded the main Emergency Room adding additional 9,300 square feet and increasing from 18 beds to 40 beds
- Since 2014, an increase of 3,295 tele-health encounters as a way to improve access
- Opened a new 425 space parking garage
- Construction of a new, expanded dental clinic expected completion April 2017
- New 20,000 square-feet Outpatient Behavioral Health building under construction with expected completion May 2018
Gibson made his first visit to PVAHCS on June 5, 2014 as acting VA secretary. He left the facility that day knowing work needed to be done, employee morale drastically needed improvement. And he made his last VA official visit in Phoenix on Jan. 13, 2017 ending with these words to current leadership “stay the course and please continue to keep me updated on your successes.”
Jessica B. Jacobsen is the deputy director at the Dallas Regional Office of Public Affairs where she provides support and counsel to VA facility directors and public affairs officers within a seven-state southwestern region.