SHALIMAR — The Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System is working to develop partnerships with medical facilities on area military bases, and even with civilian facilities, to limit the distances that some veterans have to travel for medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Bryan C. Matthews, director of the health care system, said at a town hall meeting Thursday at the VA clinic just outside Eglin Air Force Base that it's "unrealistic" to expect veterans within the sprawling area covered by the system to travel long distances for treatment, particularly when treatment is provided at the system's main facilities in Biloxi, Mississippi.
In addition to its local clinic near Eglin, the Gulf Coast system operates clinics in Pensacola, Panama City and Mobile, Alabama. Matthews, who was named director of GCVHCS in January, noted Thursday that pairing the VA with military facilities at Eglin, Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City and Naval Air Station Pensacola could ease the travel burdens faced by some veterans.
"We've already established a lot of partnerships," he said.
Matthews explained Thursday that the VA could also "license" space in Department of Defense medical facilities, as well as civilian hospitals, and staff those spaces with VA medical personnel.
"They (veterans) can go to that location and have VA doctors and VA staff take care of them," Matthews said.
Matthews also spent time at Thursday's 90-minute town hall touting progress the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System has made in improving telephone connectivity with veterans.
According to Matthews, the "abandonment rate"— the percentage of VA callers who hang up before being served, has dropped from 26 percent to 6.3 percent for clinical services, from 33 percent to 6.3 percent for pharmacy services, and from 8 percent to 3.6 percent for scheduling services.
Matthews also told the crowd that the VA's speed in answering calls is improving. That time has dropped to 55 seconds from nearly 6 minutes for clinical services, to just under a minute and a half from more than 15 minutes for pharmacy services, and from 22 seconds to 15 seconds for scheduling services, Matthews said.
But Matthews conceded Thursday that the VA is having some difficulty in recruiting and retaining health care professionals. The recent loss of two providers at the Eglin VA clinic has increased wait times at the facility, he said. And, he added, the VA is facing challenges in recruiting specialist providers, such as gastroenterologists and dermatologists.
Matthews spent much of Thursday's town hall taking questions from veterans and spouses. In one exchange, Army veteran William Bailey, who is prescribed opioid pain medication that is routinely denied by pharmacists, and who also has a medical marijuana card but can't get the medicine through the VA, urged Matthews to help veterans like him who have a demonstrable need for those medications.
According to Matthews, the VA is discussing the possibility of including medical marijuana in treatment regimens, but he also pointed to documented problems with long-term use of opioid medications, which can lead to dependence on the drugs.
But, Matthews added, the VA "is very aggressively looking at pain management. We want to look at all modalities to relieve pain."
Matthews also heard Thursday from Heila Newman, a Navy and Marine veteran, and former VA employee, who said she was discouraged with VA decisions to send veterans to civilian health care providers and facilities.
"You guys are failing us majorly," Newman said. Part of the problem, she said, is the difficulty in getting that outside medical care covered through the VA. Holding a folder containing what she said was $5,000 in outside medical bills not covered by the VA, Newman said, "I want to know who's going to get it off my credit."
Newman was also critical of her fellow veterans, contending that they often simply endure problems with the VA rather than working to get those issues addressed.
"They can't fix what you don't tell them is broken," Newman said.
In an interview following the town hall, Matthews said town-hall-style forums like Thursday's event can be an effective tool for veterans to make complaints, and for the VA to hear what's wrong with the system.
"The best way to get information is directly," Matthews said. "That's how it does get better."