Maryland’s Veterans Affairs chief responds to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs assessment on the ‘State of the VA’

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David J. Shulkin recently delivered the first “State of the VA” address to highlight the progress the Department is making, while clearly stating the challenges it faces.  Let this message serve as a “State of the VA Maryland Health Care System” address to explain how we ensure our Veterans receive safe, quality, dependable, and compassionate care they have earned and deserve.

 

In 2014, when we faced scheduling challenges with new patients having to wait too long for a primary care appointment, we took immediate action to resolve the issue. We hired additional primary care providers and support staff, re-introduced Saturday primary care clinic appointments, increased clinic capacity throughout the health care system, and implemented a daily review of all scheduled appointments to best serve patients’ needs.  Now, two and a half years later, patient wait times for primary care appointments have significantly improved with an average of 3.4 days from the patient’s preferred date, and across the board we have recorded about 40,000 completed appointments per month.  Additionally, Veterans with acute care issues can now receive a same day appointment at all of our primary care clinics state-wide.

 

Our action plan also included implementing a new vision and strategy to avoid similar challenges and to strengthen our customer service.  We focused on putting the patient at the center of all we do and committed ourselves to being vigilant about doing what is right, and doing the right thing.  But what does this mean?

 

It means applying our “I CARE squared” values—integrity, innovation, commitment, compassion, advocacy, accountability, research, respect, education, and excellence—in every interaction, discussion and correspondence.  It means striving for excellence because we are privileged to care for the men and women who have worn the cloth of our Nation.  It means developing and living a concept of care which is patient and family centered.  It means making our staff integral partners in the patient and family journey.  It means developing a “whole health” approach to care in which we serve as partners and guides for our patients in their personal health and wellness journeys.  In this way, we place the patient as the center of our care model.

 

How do we measure our success?  By decreasing our numbers of homeless Veterans; by increasing our patient satisfaction scores; by providing care for our Veterans where, when, and how they desire it and having their families join them in their health journey.

 

To date we have begun to achieve positive results.  Our patient satisfaction surveys demonstrate a sharp rise in Veteran satisfaction scores, a shift from the failing scores of the 2014 survey.  To date we consistently pass the majority of our outpatient patient satisfaction measures.  Most recently, we passed 16 of 20 satisfaction measures, with the Perry Point VA Medical Center passing 19 of them.  We have established methods to address, in real-time, noise levels at night, room cleanliness, discharge planning, medication education, pain management, physician and nurse communication, and staff responsiveness.  This allows us to address our patients’ needs quickly and effectively.

 

We have reduced the number of homeless Veterans in our catchment area, and we are working hard to ensure that formerly homeless Veterans avoid a relapse that could lead them back onto the streets.  We have opened a Community Resource and Referral Center, where homeless Veterans can drop in to receive a meal, take a shower, do laundry, receive new clothes, undergo medical and mental health exams, and connect with VA services that help them stay off the streets permanently.  Last month, Governor Larry Hogan joined us to break ground for the HELP Veterans Village at the Perry Point VA Medical Center, to transform vacant village houses into 75 units of permanent housing for at-risk and formerly homeless Veterans and their families. Because of this partnership with HELP USA and the State, formerly homeless Veterans will have easy access to an array of VA support services within walking distance of where they live.

 

Our success is also reflected in our employees’ positive attitudes, pride and satisfaction in their jobs, and their affirmation as essential partners in our patients’ journey.  This positivity was reflected in the last All Employee Survey results, in which we have scored in the in the top percentile throughout the VA nationally in the last two years.  For our health care system to achieve excellence, employees need to know that everyone’s job is critical to our mission of serving our Nation’s heroes.  All employees are responsible for clean environments, available supplies, accurate paperwork, precise schedules, and a positive attitude because we are all in this together – a family of Veterans, employees and volunteers working to achieve one mission:  to serve our Nation’s Veterans by providing them what they need when they need it.  All employees are critical to delivering safe, quality, and dependable care to our Veterans.

 

We are not perfect.  We know there is still much to do and much yet to accomplish on our journey toward achieving excellence in serving Veterans.  We must listen, learn, and lead.  Listen to our Veterans and their families; listen to our stakeholders and our employees; learn how to improve care and services and always display an unyielding commitment to our patients; and lead our Veterans – those who we are honored to care for on their journey to excellence in whole health care at the VA Maryland Health Care System.

 

— Dr. Robinson is director of the VA Maryland Health Care System.

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