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New VA official: Cutting wait times is a priority

July 14, 2016 Updated: July 15, 2016 at 7:33 am
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photo - The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to offer its patients same-day care at each of its medical centers by year's end, including the VA Outpatient Clinic at 3141 Centennial Blvd. in Colorado Springs.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to offer its patients same-day care at each of its medical centers by year's end, including the VA Outpatient Clinic at 3141 Centennial Blvd. in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

Two weeks into his job as deputy chief of staff for Veterans Affairs' Eastern Colorado Healthcare System, Harold Dillon visited the Colorado Springs clinic to assure the public he was on the job of tackling the average 32-day wait times new patients face at the facility. 

"When we talk about numbers we know we are talking about human beings, here," Dillon said Thursday afternoon at PFC Floyd K. Lindstrom Outpatient Clinic.

"I'm a physician and I know that every time I throw a number out there I'm talking about somebody who we are trying to take care of, and in terms of access we are doing a better job but we can still improve," he said.

Dillon said the average wait time at the clinic for established patients is eight days.

"This is the fastest-growing clinic in eastern Colorado and possibly the nation," Dillon said. "Since fiscal year 2014, the two-year change growth rate is 33 percent. Most community clinics in the VA are growing at a rate in the single digits."

Dillon said addressing the access issue is his top priority and it includes recruiting and retaining staff.

He came to Colorado Springs in part to help highlight the remote-access video cameras, TVs and other tools the VA is increasingly relying on to provide rural veterans with access to care in a timely and convenient manner. The program is called Telehealth.

Dr. Diane Brady, an audiologist who has been with VA for 10 years, performed a remote hearing test of Felix Salazar, who otherwise would have had to drive 180 miles to Colorado Springs for an appointment.

Salazar sat in a sound booth in Alamosa as Brady remotely controlled the sounds. Salazar then indicated what he could hear. The video was high quality and uninterrupted, although Salazar, who uses hearing aids, had a hard time hearing the doctor at times.

Dan Warvi, public affairs officer with the Eastern Colorado Healthcare System, said the system's hospital and 14 clinics are ramping up use of the system.

Telehealth became standard with the system in 2009, Warvi said, when the technology was used to serve 4,000 veterans.

So far in 2016, 12,000 veterans have used the system, he said.

"We want to keep adding to that," he said.

He said the cost and feasibility of finding specialists, or even primary care doctors, willing and able to serve rural communities like Alamosa and La Junta make the Telehealth system critical.

Dermatologists can use a high-definition wand camera to inspect suspicious spots remotely. Some cardiologists and anesthesiologists prefer to use a stethoscope connected to the Telehealth unit over their own stethoscopes, Warvi said.

Dillon said Telehealth is one way to improve veterans' access to care and the system is making strides.

The electronic wait list peaked this year at 880 veterans waiting for primary care, but he said that fell to zero in April and has remained there.

"Is this enough? No," said Warvi, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, surgeon and ophthalmologist. "We need to do more."

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