Improving care for North Alabama veterans priority for top VA official new to Huntsville

WAAY 31's talked to a top VA Administrator to find out what they're doing to improve the quality of care for veterans here in North Alabama.

Posted: Nov 11, 2019 8:01 PM

As we celebrate our nations veterans, many of them are still battling the health care system back here at home.

The VA’s failure to provide timely and quality health care for veterans has been front and center for years, like the 2014 VA wait-time scandal.

WAAY 31's talked to a top VA Administrator to find out what they're doing to improve the quality of care for veterans here in North Alabama.

Veterans like Thomas Cone fought for their lives in Vietnam, and feel they shouldn't have to keep fighting for quality health care.

"It's been very, very good and not even close sometimes," Cone explained in response to his care at the VA.

In fact, Huntsville has been at the center of debate, after a scathing report earlier this year, highlighted the inefficiencies at the state run veterans care home. A home the VA clinic often refers patients to.

While it's not directly tied to the VA system, its failure to meet standards of care for North Alabama veterans can impact the opinion of veteran care in the community.

A battle Huntsville VA's new Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tricia Villaneuva-Harris now faces.

"I don't think you can judge one VA to the other because the issues that are occurring in that community and in that state are very different, and I think you have to judge it based on what that one clinic, that one hospital facility is doing and not as a whole," she said.

That's where the new federal Mission Act comes in to help Cone and other service members get the quality care they need. But, there are certain criteria, such as distance from the nearest VA facility or a need for a service the VA does not offer, to go outside the VA and receive care from a VA-approved, private community care program.

"Here in Huntsville, because we provide a lot of service and we keep a watch on their access, in fact we're increasing our primary care service line to add on to more patient teams so that we can provide more access, to prevent people having to go out of our system and get their care."

Expanding primary services is a key focus for Villaneuva-Harris.

We've heard people have to go to Birmingham first to get enrolled, and I know there's a lot of push with online enrollment but how does that work here in North Alabama? Do veterans have to go to Birmingham for that first consultation?

"No," Villaneuva-Harris further explained, "(Veterans) can actually come here. We have two enrollment specialist Greg and Tonya, who are here on-ground, who can actually enroll the veterans here and they can get an appointment that day when they first enroll, and they can come in during office hours and being enrolled here instead of having to drive all the way to Birmingham."

The Huntsville VA enrolls an estimated 80 new patients a month. Women veterans are among the fastest growing subgroup.

"13% of our patient population are female veterans," she said, "As it grows we want to not only have this one provider, but maybe possibly two providers that can provide Women's Care and tie that into their primary care."

Villanueva-Harris wants to also expand mental health care.

"We're trying to do some Telehealth mental health so that it provides better access for the veterans who may have a daytime job and can't come to a clinic appointment."

Serving a total of 16,000 patents, they have to find a way to keep their care efficient and thorough.

"Sometimes you have to wait," said Vietnam era veteran, Jerry Crutcher. He's looking for a few changes under the new leadership.

"The one thing would be the wait time," said Crutcher, "A second thing would be if they would take the time to kind of explain some things in the process to you a bit more with what's being done at the moment."

In just three weeks on the job, the now Retired Army Major is ready to take action to hold Huntsville Clinic's level of care to a high standard.

"My responsibility is to make sure that we as a team here at the HSV VA Clinic provide the best care we can to our veterans here in the area."

Encouraging veterans and community members to take part in town hall meetings and voice their concerns as a way to measure the success of a facility that's grown into the the largest outside clinic connected to the Birmingham VA hospital since opening its doors in 2015.

Villaneuva-Harris' roots run deep within the VA, she started as a candy-striper as a child, her father, a long time provider for the Beckley VA.

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