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In Norfolk, VA Secretary outlined 5 priorities for overhauling veterans' care

Courtney Mabeus | The Virginian-Pilot

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin described the VA system much like he might a patient.

“The VA has a lot of problems right now, and I describe it as being in critical condition,” Shulkin told reporters Wednesday. “That means we need to intensively monitor the progress of the organization, but I believe we’re moving in the right direction.”

Shulkin’s remarks came on the 96th anniversary of the creation of the VA and after speaking to hundreds of members of the veterans service organization American Veterans – or AMVETS – gathered in downtown Norfolk this week for its 73rd annual national convention.

An internist, Shulkin served as VA’s undersecretary for health for 18 months in the Obama administration. He was picked by President Donald J. Trump to overhaul the beleaguered department following years of controversy, including a wait-time scandal in Arizona during which patients may have died while awaiting care.

The VA serves nearly 9 million patients in more than 1,700 facilities. But complaints about customer service, long waits for appointments and a hard-to-navigate bureaucracy have left the system hobbled.

Shulkin on Wednesday named his five priorities: modernizing facilities and systems, more efficient use of resources, quicker responses on appeals and disability claims and improved access to care, suicide prevention, and allowing patients greater choice in when and how they see caregivers.

The Veterans Choice Program, enacted in 2014 amid the wait scandal, allows some veterans to see non-VA health care providers in their communities based on their residence, wait times or other special criteria. Shulkin said the administration will propose to Congress a program that will eliminate administrative barriers to this.

”The Choice program has not been working anywhere near the way it needs to,” Shulkin said.

Shulkin also touted a tool intended to increase transparency about wait times by allowing patients to search an online database at www.accesstopwt.va.gov that displays them by clinic, appointment type and location on a map. The VA previously published some of that information online but in a hard-to-decipher format.

“If it takes too long, it’s there,” Shulkin said. “If we’re doing a good job, it’s there.”

The tool comes on the heels of a March inspector general’s audit that said some employees used the wrong data when scheduling appointments within the VA network that includes hospitals, clinics and outpatient centers throughout Virginia and North Carolina. As a result, patients were waiting longer to be seen than the health facilities’ own data reflected.

But Shulkin said the system used by the VA’s 38,000 schedulers has been simplified, and an antiquated computer system is being upgraded to one resembling a Microsoft Outlook calendar. Average wait times displayed online now should be accurate, he said.

Ramon Villanueva Jr. commands the AMVETS Post 251 in Riverside, N.J. He called Shulkin’s remarks “encouraging.” Since Shulkin’s confirmation in February, Villanueva said the VA employees at the Philadelphia facility he visits have been friendlier and doctors have been calling him days after his appointments to follow up.

”It gives me peace of mind,” he said.

But James Jordon, an AMVETS member from Fairfield, Pa., said he was skeptical. Jordon said the VA declined to cover an MRI he had scheduled just hours before the appointment and wondered if he’d have to pay for it out of pocket. He wore a neck brace from the Martinsburg, W.Va., VA Medical Center to help with pain from a spinal condition.

“I want to see action,” Jordon said.

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