Last year, a veteran in Albuquerque died at the VA medical center cafeteria after waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance. The tragedy was a severe example of a problem plaguing health services for veterans: lengthy waits for care. New VA Health Care System Director Andrew Welch talked about why the influx of money hasn’t resolved staffing shortages and long waits in New Mexico.
WELCH: The ability to train, to hire and to retain staff is always going to be a challenge. And so I think what we’re trying to look at doing is getting our recruiting efforts up. And so, regardless of the amount of money, you still have to be able to recruit good people and keep your good people.
KUNM: The VA’s inspector general said managers at some VAs around the country lied about scheduling practices. Here in Albuquerque, a VA doctor spoke anonymously about a secret VA wait list. How will you make sure that New Mexico’s VA staff is honest and accountable with those wait times?
WELCH: The first thing is we want staff to be open and honest and feel like they can come forward with any concern they have with scheduling—or any other concern that they have. Second thing is that when we get those concerns, we look into them. We drill down. We try to find what’s going on. We try to look into what the issues are.
KUNM: Now there’s also concern about veterans who are dying while they’re waiting for care. What can be done to assure that those kinds of tragedies don’t happen?
WELCH: We want to get our veterans in. We want to get them seen. We want to take care of them. The people who work here at our VA, and across the state with VA, you know our goal is to take great care of veterans.
The people that come to our facilities, wake up every morning and come to staff and start their shift knowing that they have the most noble mission of any organization, and that is to provide health care to veterans. And so the first thing is to be able to continue to hire great staff and to be sure that we are filling any gaps that we have in between being able to get the veterans in.
KUNM: Now are there some thoughts to solutions for what veterans can do as they’re waiting for their care?
WELCH: The main thing is if they’re waiting more than 30 days for their care, they have the option of using their veteran’s choice card. If they choose to get the care outside of VA, then they can do that.
KUNM: Last year the VA also cut the number of inpatient beds that are available in New Mexico. And veterans I talked to were worried that this would make waits even longer. Are there enough beds? And will you add more?
WELCH: I think we have the number of beds that we probably need. We’re looking to ensure the right number of staffing to be able to cover those beds. And so we’re in the process now of hiring additional staff.
KUNM: Another thing that veterans talked about—and I’m sure you heard this on your town hall tour as well—but there also seems to sometimes be a contentious relationship between veterans and the staff, and people who feel like they’ve been dismissed or disrespected by the staff. How do you restore trust overall for veterans?
Well, what I’ll say is that though there were occasions of that at the town halls that I did, there were a few instances of that. But at the end of most of the town halls, I had a number of veterans who may not have spoke up at the town hall but who came in and said I got nothing but great care and respectful care every time I’ve come to any of your facilities. And so of course we always remember the negative more than we remember the positive when it comes to customer service, and so we’re going to continue to promote the positive and to work with people in providing positive customer relations, patient relations, and also look into the areas where we fall short.
A hotline for veterans looking to speed up appointments or find alternatives will be live through Thursday at 3 p.m. Call 505-222-3351.