LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Three years after a devastating series of reports exposing extremely long wait times at some Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, officials in Washington D.C. and central Arkansas are working to show progress. They know they have an uphill climb to shed the image of an inefficient government bureaucracy that badly needs reform.
“We don't want to be seen as just a government organization,” said Dr. Margie Scott, the medical director for the Central Arkansas Veterans Health Service. “We want to be accountable. Our goal is to be the most trusted organization and we know we have work to do.”
There is a public relations campaign going on from the VA. It began with a “State of the VA” address from Dr. David Shulkin, the secretary of the sprawling veterans agency. He outlined more than two dozen items the agency is focusing on, including accessibility, improving old facilities and streamlining the bureaucracy.
Local officials followed with a news conference at the McClellan VA hospital in Little Rock. It included a media tour of a new $2.9 million dialysis facility set to open later this summer. That joins a new operating room opening next week and other infrastructure improvements all in the works.
Officials also touted improved response and appointment times. That includes new same-day access to facilities if a veteran displays an urgent need for care. They pointed to a renewed focus on mental health in light of a high suicide rate among former service members.
“We do offer the services here and some do avail themselves,” said Dr. Irving Kuo, the chief of mental health services for CAVHS. “In an emergency situation again we will always see them that day.”
But for some advocates, there’s nothing new in the latest campaign.
“It sounds exactly the same as the last three VA secretaries before him,” said Chris Attig, an attorney and Army veteran who specializes in helping fellow vets navigate the VA’s benefits and health care systems. “Some of the things that he said are the exact things that director [James] Peake said, that secretary [Eric] Shinseki said that secretary [Robert] McDonald said.”
Attig thinks a total culture change is needed to reverse trends.
“I think that they see the same 10 to 15 problems,” Attig said. “There's a failure of imagination to try to put together solutions that are different.”
But locally, officials think it can be done.
“It will require a culture change,” Dr. Scott said. “It will require us to be a more effective team. For us to be very honest with what we do well and what we don't do well.”
That honesty and transparency is on display to the public with new websites that allow veterans – customers, essentially – to compare VA facilities to other area hospitals as well as check average times to get appointments.
Federal officials also released its internal ratings for VA hospitals after an investigation by USA Today. Arkansas’ two hospital systems are well rated, with Fayetteville among the few 5-star facilities. Central Arkansas improved from a 2- to a 3-star rating in 2016.
To see how our local VA stacks up compared to others in the nation, click here.