IRON MOUNTAIN – On Thursday, May 31, VA Secretary David Shulkin gave a State of the VA briefing at the White House highlighting areas for improvement in serving the nation’s Veterans. Among the issues touched upon included quality of care, aging buildings, access to care, and appointments with community providers.
Regarding quality of care, Dr. Shulkin identified 14 VA Medical Centers with a 1 star rating. It is a different story, however, for the VA Medical Center based in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and its seven community-based VA outpatient clinics in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin. The Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center and its community-based clinics, who collectively serve 20,000 Veterans annually, is a 5 star VA healthcare system that is nationally ranked seventh among the 128 VA Medical Centers in providing quality care. In addition, it’s Community Living Center for long term care and short term rehab is in the 1st quintile for quality and ranked fifteenth overall in the VA.
“There is, perhaps, no more noble mission in America than providing care to our Nation’s heroes on a daily basis, and our staff takes this responsibility very seriously,” said Jim Rice, Medical Center Director.
The VA Medical Center is also recognized as the eighth best place to work among all Veterans Health Administration facilities based on the Federal Employee View Point Survey.
“When you have an engaged, stable workforce and high employee satisfaction, that positively impacts the quality of care provided,” said Rice.
As for aging buildings, the Iron Mountain VA Medical Center was built shortly after World War II; however, today it boasts state-of-the-art equipment and a modern design.
“The outside has not changed much, but when you walk into our facility, it does not look like it was built in the late 1940s,” said Rice.
Although the Oscar G. Johnson VA is nationally recognized for its care, it is not resting in improving Veterans’ access to care. It has been on the forefront of implementing both national and local initiatives to improve access to VA healthcare.
It was one of the first 39 VA Medical Centers to offer same day service for more urgent primary care and mental health needs of Veterans. It also established direct scheduling for routine audiology and optometry appointments without requiring a referral and plans to expand this to other specialty care clinics.
“Allowing Veterans to direct schedule specialty care appointments provides more timely care for these services and frees up primary care providers to see Veterans who need more than just a referral,” said Rice.
The VA Medical Center also continues to expand telehealth technology to serve mostly rural Veterans in one of the largest VA patient service areas. In 2016, 43 primary care and specialty care clinics used state-of-the-art technology for nearly 11,000 telehealth appointments with Veterans in one location and the providers in another. This saves Veterans the time and expense of traveling longer distances.
“We cover 24 counties in Michigan and Wisconsin, over 25,800 square miles, so our telehealth capability brings VA care closer to their homes,” said Rice.
Most recently, Veterans using the Oscar G. Johnson VA healthcare system can now schedule their primary care and mental health appointments using the Veteran Appointment Request app on their smartphones or computers.
The Oscar G. Johnson VA is not without its challenges. The Veterans Choice Program was passed by Congress and implemented in 2014 allowing Veterans with longer wait times for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA healthcare facility to use community providers via a third-party administrator.
“The two biggest issues we hear at our Veteran Town Halls regarding the Choice Program is the long time it has taken for the program’s administrator to schedule some of our Veterans’ appointments and the long time it has taken to pay the community providers,” said Rice.
One of the solutions has been for the VA to directly contract with local community providers allowing for quicker appointment scheduling and provider payments, something that the Oscar G. Johnson VA has been on the forefront in developing and implementing. VA is also working with Congress to improve the Choice Program.
The VA has recently launched a website on access and quality in VA healthcare, providing Veterans and dependents helpful, easy to understand information on wait times, patient satisfaction and quality for VA facilities.
“One of Secretary Shulkin’s top priorities is providing greater choice for our Veterans, and this website is one tool that our Veterans and their families can use to make informed health care choices,” said Rice. The website for Access and Quality in VA Healthcare can be found at http://www.accesstocare.va.gov.