Permanent leadership is now on board at Arizona’s three VA health care systems and positive change is sweeping throughout the state.

With three VA hospital campuses, 25 clinics, nine Vet Centers, two cemeteries and one regional office, VA now has new leadership onboard that is dedicated to improve health care access to the more than 532,000 Veterans they serve.

RimaAnn Nelson, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, meets with volunteers prior to the local point-in-time homeless count.

“This is not the health care system it was in April 2014,” said RimaAnn Nelson, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System.  “We still have areas to improve and we will not stop looking at ways to improve our health care delivery.  “But I am proud to say, Phoenix VA has truly become the location for innovation.”

Phoenix recently launched a new initiative with Triwest and CVS MinuteClinics that will expand access to convenient, quality health care for Veterans in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Through the initiative, Phoenix VA nurses now have the authority to refer Veterans to MinuteClinics through the Veterans Choice Program for treatment of minor illnesses and injuries.

Here are a few highlights of some of the positive changes Phoenix Veterans are seeing:

  • Added 826 employees since 2014 to increase the number of Veterans that can be seen;
  • Completed 130,621 more outpatient visits in 2016 than 2014. Pheonix also brought  5,707 more Veterans under their care;
  • Opened four new outpatient clinics – one in Gilbert, one in Scottsdale, and two in Phoenix;
  • Sharing space with Banner Health to provide additional operating room space and capacity;
  • Opened a 5,000 square-foot, Homeless Community Referral and Resource Center, to provide services for homeless Veterans.;
  • Renovated and expanded the main Emergency Room adding additional 9,300 square feet and increasing capacity from 18 to 40 beds;
  • Tele-health visits increased to 3,295;
  • Opened a new 425-space parking garage;
  • A new, expanded dental clinic is under construction and should open by end of the year;
  • New 20,000 square-feet Outpatient Behavioral Health building should be completed by May 2018; and
  • The Phoenix VA’s new Mobile Medical Unit, an RV-based clinic on wheels, provides outreach and medical care to Veterans primarily in rural areas.
VA Northern Arizona Health Care System Director Barbara Oemcke presents a commemorative pin and coin to a Vietnam Veteran

VA Northern Arizona Health Care System Director Barbara Oemcke presents a commemorative pin and coin to a Vietnam Veteran.

Traveling a few hours north to Prescott, VA’s Northern Arizona Health Care System now has permanent leadership dedicated to provide stability to a highly rural Veterans community.


Barbara Oemcke, who previously served in leadership roles at VA’s Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and clinics is now at the helm in Prescott, which serves 26,000 Veterans across more than 65,000 square miles, has gone through many improvements.

The following are  some of the changes made over the last few years:

  • A new emergency department,  a new clinic in Kingman, and new mental health clinic and a new endoscopy clinic;
  • Transformation of the Community Living Center for long term patients;
  • Expanded telehealth with three new primary care telehealth outpatient clinics in Tuba City, Polacca and Kayenta;
  • A new spinal cord injury clinic scheduled to open this summer and a new pharmacy and lab construction project began in April; and
  • A partnership with Catholic Charities is bringing new housing resources to homeless Veterans in Prescott.

Moving the south, the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System (SAVAHCS), has a main campus located in Tucson and community based outpatient clinics located in seven other communities, to serve more than 171,000 Veterans in eight counties in Arizona and one county in Western New Mexico.

William Caron, director of the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System, thanks a VA volunteer.

William Caron, director of the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System, thanks a VA volunteer.

William J. Caron left a leadership role at Las Vegas VA Medical Center to become the SAVAHCS director back in March pledging to be forthcoming with Veterans and acknowledge their concerns personally.

“I will continue to engage and express where our challenges are and also our successes,” said Caron. “The staff of Southern Arizona VA and the Veterans of this community deserve nothing less than to hear directly from me on a continual basis of my plans for moving forward.”

Some of SAVAHCS achievements include:

  • VSAVAHCS aggressively recruited for Choice Act staffing positionshiring 144 new employees to improve Veteran access to primary care, mental health, and specialty services;
  • Opened a new 25-bed mental health residential rehabilitation treatment program;
  • A new Inpatient mental health facility is scheduled to open this summer;
  • Ten of the 50 Tucson Nurses Week Foundation Awards “Tucson’s Fabulous Fifty Nurses” were awarded to VA nurses;
  • As of February, Tucson completed more than 36,000 appointments with almost 96 percent being completed in under 30 days – closing in on the goal of seeing all of Veterans within 30 days of their preferred appointment date; and
  • SAVAHCS received reaccreditation from the Joint Commission in March 2017.

While talking about Arizona and services for Veterans, we cannot forget about our VA regional benefits office and National Memorial Veterans Cemetery of Arizona – both based in Phoenix.

Chris Norton, who started last summer as director of the Phoenix VA Regional Office has made significant achievements in claims and benefits delivery:

  • Average day pending for a claim is at 105 days (national average is 125 days) and the Phoenix Veterans Service Center just completed over 16,000 rating claims which is the third highest producing station in VA;
  • Phoenix Regional Loan Center, which serves four states, guaranteed over 125,000 new loans for Veterans and their families making this by far the highest annual production of any jurisdiction in the history of the program.  Also helping more than 3,500
  • Veterans avoid foreclosure on their home – equating to a savings of $127 million in claim payments;
  • VA Special Adaptive Housing (SAH) grants are up more than 15 percent this fiscal year.
  • The National Call Center, based at Phoenix VARO, has a speed to answer rate of 1:34 with more than 544,000 calls answered year to date; and
  • Phoenix VARO offers many other services such as education and career counseling and vocational rehabilitation.

Jerry Rainey, director of VA’s National Memorial Veterans Cemetery of Arizona, conducts on average 16 burials a day for honored Veterans and their loved ones with 3,750 burials conducted last year. The landscaping of the VA cemetery in Phoenix is called “water-wise” which reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation. The Phoenix cemetery is an example to others nationwide of the beauty that comes from natural landscaping at a national cemetery.

All this to say, that Arizona Veteran voices are being heard and VA is there to help them on the journey of treatment, recovery and well-being.  Veterans should feel a level of comfort knowing solid, permanent leadership exists statewide throughout Arizona’s three health care systems and other facilities.

We can’t erase the past, we can only work to improve, leverage our successes and talents, and focus on building a more balanced reputation than the headlines have given our VA health care systems throughout Arizona and across the country.

About the author:  Jessica Jacobsen is a public affairs specialist in Dallas with the VA Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.

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Published on May. 11, 2017

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