Friday, January 22, 2010

By Chris Roberts / El Paso Times
Posted: 01/22/2010 12:00:00 AM MST

FORT BLISS -- The El Paso VA Health Care System, once rated as the worst Veterans Affairs clinic in the nation, has turned the corner, the system's director said Thursday.

An internal review three years ago said the Veterans Affairs clinic was not diligent in providing screening for sicknesses such as breast cancer and diabetes. Veterans complained that they had difficulty getting past the automated phone system to speak to a person.

The ratings have been steadily improving, said Joan Ricard, who took over as the El Paso VA acting director in July 2008 and was appointed as the full-fledged director five months later.

In fiscal year 2008, the El Paso operation passed 37 percent of the clinical performance measures reviewed, Ricard said. In 2009, it passed 62 percent, and in the first quarter of this fiscal year it has passed 91 percent, she said.

"I'm hoping that it stays there," Ricard said. "We're going to continue making those strides."

System health professionals are rated on how efficiently they handle a range of early detection and preventive tests, Ricard said. Those include tests for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, cholesterol, blood pressure and a range of cancers.

"Since the change of leadership, we've put an enormous amount of emphasis on these performance measures," Ricard said. "We'd like to keep (veterans) healthy."

Ricard said the importance of those screening tests is being stressed to doctors and nursing staff. Passing those measures also depends on the veterans, who must show up for appointments and follow through on tests done at home, she said.

"It really takes a lot of education for them to understand why these things are important," she said.

One vital test is the suicide risk assessment.

"If they test positive on (the initial) screen, they need to go to a higher level screen," Ricard said. "The next level screen has to be completed within the next 24 hours. É It could be completed 25 hours later and we don't pass the measure."

Officials are seeking improvements after placing licensed clinical social workers in the primary-care section. That also decreases some of the stigma attached to sending someone to the mental health wing, so more veterans will participate.

None of the improvements will matter, however, if veterans cannot get through the phone system. A new computerized system was causing problems early on, but it has become an asset, Ricard said, because it can measure response times and dropped calls.

High-volume areas include the appointment scheduling system, the nurse triage line and the pharmacy, she said. Some of the problems with the pharmacy line were related to staff vacancies that have been filled, she said.

"Our goal is to try to answer all those calls within 60 seconds," Ricard said.

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.

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