EDITORIAL: After personnel, policy changes VA center showing improvement

Rio Grande Valley veterans have reason to hold out hope that their needs will be better addressed in the future.

A year after the Department of Veterans Affairs gave the Harlingen medical center its lowest possible rating, the agency reports the center has shown marked improvement and is no longer considered a “high-risk” medical facility, according to a VA assessment released last month.

Of 146 VA medical centers across the country, Harlingen was one of 15 given the worst possible rating last year. It was the only Texas health center to receive the lowest rating.

The rating was hardly a surprise, as local veterans had complained of poor service for years. Audits found that Valley veterans often had to wait up to three months to see a general physician and five months to see a specialist. Several veterans died while waiting, of conditions that the auditors said would not have been fatal if they had been treated earlier.

The problem was so bad that the health center removed many veterans from the waiting lists to give the appearance that the problem wasn’t as bad as it actually was.

After last year’s low ranking, the VA imposed a strategy it calls Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning. The program seeks to analyze and improve access to doctors, death rates, complications from treatment, overall efficiency and patient satisfaction.

The VA transferred administrators and other workers and other resources from high-performing centers to high-risk centers, and opened a call center at the Harlingen facility to handle veterans’ calls more quickly, improve customer service and better address veterans’ needs. The system is designed so that if a call to the Harlingen center isn’t answered promptly, it rolls over to another center so that the caller’s needs are immediately documented and addressed.

New administrators also instituted changes to outpatient care management, trying to get veterans from an initial consultation to direct care from a doctor the same day.

With the nearest full-fledged VA hospital more than 300 miles away, the Valley center relies on a network of private doctors to tend to veterans’ ailments. Another change implemented this year is a more comprehensive database to provide veterans’ information to the doctors and Valley hospitals.

All these initiatives, and the results they have brought so far, led the VA to note “significant improvement,” and raise its rating from one to two stars on its five-star rating system. Harlingen was one of five of the 15 high-risk centers to improve its ratings.

Granted, two stars are still closer to the bottom than to the top with regard to overall performance, but permanent improvement takes time. We hope the progress the local VA center has seen over the past year encourages its personnel and motivates them to do all they can to move the center up the performance rankings, and give the Valley’s 50,000 veterans the medical care they earned with their service to this country.