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HONESDALE -- Ever since the scandal that rocked the US Veterans Administration in 2014, the agency has been working hard to establish trust and confidence in the organization amongst the men and women it serves. Locally, that has included annual Town Hall meetings with the director of the VA Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Russell Lloyd.
Lloyd and Public Affairs Director William Klaips met with approximately 40 local veterans in late April to discuss the efforts of the VA to better serve them and to work to address the specific needs of those who seek medical services.
The major issue among those who attended the meeting is the lack of specialists, particularly in cardiology and urology. That lack at the Wilkes-Barre VA has meant long distance travel for many veterans.
Lloyd said Wilkes-Barre has a full-time staff of approximately 1,300 people with a 10 to 15 percent vacancy due to routine attrition. However, the VA has a difficult time recruiting specialist because the salary is not competitive with what is generally available in the private sector. To counter this impediment, VA officials have been turning more and more to telemedicine options.
Wilkes-Barre has also tried to address this through bonuses tied to years of service for primary care physicians, and is considering it to try to attract a psychiatrist. But, Lloyd noted, that is not sustainable over long periods of time, and it can take two to four years to successfully recruit some specialty physicians.
Wayne County Veterans Affairs Director Frank Muggeo said the specialist issue has created another concern involving transportation. The county provides transportation to Wilkes-Barre, but now some veterans are visiting specialists in other regions and even other states. He asked if the VA can help with these cases.
Klaips noted that there are very strict rules about who the VA can transport, but Lloyd indicated there may be an opportunity to coordinate these services with other counties in the same position and create a more efficient economy of scale.
Lloyd discussed a series of five initiatives that VA is focused on to improve the agency, including greater access, modernization, focusing available resources, improving the timeless of service delivery and suicide prevention.
To improve veterans’ access to the VA health care system, the agency revamped its online portal last fall, which provides easy access to information about prescriptions, the crisis hotline, appointments and health records, benefits and medical information as well as a secure way to communicates with the VA health care team.
Lloyd also said the VA is addressing access to services specifically by tracking the time it takes to get an initial appointment or urgent care at each of its facilities, most recently including the Honesdale clinic. He said the wait at Honesdale is about 16 days for a first appointment and most urgent care issues are being addressed within 24 hours.
Other improvements include the Forever GI Bill, which eliminates the 15-year limit on services in favor of a lifetime benefit, and the National Cemetery Administration is working to produce digital maps and locators for the National Cemeteries.
On the national level, the Veterans Administration will be replacing its electronic health records system over the coming years. Lloyd said the VA was among the first agencies to switch to electronic records, but that was 30 years ago and the system needs an upgrade. The plan is to use the same vendor as the Department of Defense, which should make the transaction from active duty a smoother one
“This is going to be a seven- to 10-year transition because we need to make sure the legacy data is available,” Lloyd explained. He also said the Wilkes-Barre Medical Center has made some changes to its governance and structural organization, and is looking at opportunities for automation.
The VA plans to better focus its resources by right-sizing its physical plant. Lloyd said unlike Wilkes-Barre, which is utilizing all its available space, there are a number of facilities across the country with unused buildings. The agency expects to convert or sell off some 1,500 buildings in the system.
TIMELINESS & MENTAL HEALTH
Lloyd said the timeliness of services has a top priority with the VA, which is striving to ensure same-day services for primary care and mental health appointments. The Honesdale Clinic, he noted has been performing well with an average 500 to 600 appointments a month, with no one on the waiting list and most patients being seen in less than two days.
With an average of 20 veterans a day committing suicide, Lloyd said the VA has been concentrating resources in addressing mental health issues. The VA has initiated agency-wide training opportunities, to insure all employees are ready to assist in a mental health crisis.
The VA has also improved the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255 press 1) by increasing from one national call center to three. Lloyd said this has helped to reduce the number of dropped calls and made staff available on a 24/7 basis. He also pointed out that now, if activated, Siri can automatically call the Crisis Line on Apple mobile and home devices.
Veterans with questions about their VA benefits or who need help with an issue or paperwork, the Wayne County Veterans Affairs Office can help. You can call 570-253-5970 ext. 1752 or visit them at 314 Tenth St., Honesdale or got to for more information.