DUBLIN — The Carl Vinson VA Medical Center is making progress in reducing physician vacancies and is recruiting more volunteers, its director says, but the facility continues to lag in the area that probably matters most.
During a Monday news conference, Director Maryalice Morro said the average wait for veterans to get a primary care appointment is about 50 days. The goal is under 30 days.
“We still have long wait periods to get in,” Morro said. “While I see it getting better in the months ahead, we still struggle.”
The news conference is part of an effort this week in which leaders of VA hospitals nationwide are meeting with media to discuss efforts to improve service, said Frank Jordan, spokesman for the Dublin facility.
Morro, a former Navy nurse who has been on the job four months, said several doctors have been hired in the past couple of weeks.
“I think we are in a process where we are finally starting to see the fruits of our labor in recruiting and hiring,” she said.
Those efforts may not be showing in wait times just yet due to the time it takes to get new staff acclimated, Morro said, but she is hopeful the hires will lead to shorter wait times.
She also touted efforts to increase volunteerism, as well as partnerships with the community and businesses. One example, she said, is that Sonny’s Barbecue once a month feeds veterans in a different unit at the center. Also the mental health care unit, while seeing substantial growth in patient numbers, is immediately treating veterans who seek care.
Last week Congress passed a major piece of legislation related to the VA that is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.The act makes up for a VA funding shortfall by shifting money from the Choice Act, which hasn’t been used as much as expected. That money will go into other previously existing programs aimed at helping veterans get care at private-sector facilities.
The Choice Act was supposed to make it easier for veterans to get care outside of the VA system, but Morro said its complexities actually have made it more difficult. For now, moving the funds back into programs that are more familiar to veterans will help, she said.
“It will allow us a little more flexibility in how we get the care to the veterans,” she said.
A second, more controversial, piece of legislation passed the House and is under consideration by the Senate. It streamlines the process for VA employees to be fired. That idea is opposed by Democrats, who say it will discourage healthcare workers from seeking VA employment. Obama has threatened a veto.
Morro said firing a VA employee is “not easy,” but she said several employees at the Dublin VA hospital have been fired for various reasons since she has been director.
“It takes a long time to let them go if they are not performing,” she said. “We don’t always do a great job in management of helping people understand where their deficiencies are and working with them to improve.”
Recruiting medical care professionals to a rural area has been considered a challenge for the hospital, but Jordan said hospital leaders are working to turn it into a lure. For one thing, the hospital offers a significant benefit. Because Middle Georgia State University has a building on the hospital grounds, VA employees and their families can attend the school for free.
But, he said, the hospital also is trying to use the rural setting as a selling point.
“We are trying to switch the narrative,” Jordan said. “Some people see Dublin and Laurens County as rural — it doesn’t have this, doesn’t have that. We are trying to invert that to say ‘Here’s what we do have: a low cost of living, low crime rate, friendly folks,’ and that’s appealing more and more to people.”
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.