Officials from the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta revealed during a town hall meeting here Wednesday that the center’s Statesboro clinic, which got its first onsite physician in May, will soon add a second doctor on a temporary basis.
Officials are also considering adding space at the clinic, but said that approval to expand or relocate is at least a year away, and probably two. About 50 people attended the meeting the VA Medical Center held at American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90.
George Cutright, 66, a Statesboro resident who once served with the Navy on a strike assault boat in the canals of Vietnam, told the VA officials that if they want to do something to improve the clinic, they should add space. He attended a post-traumatic stress disorder class that met there, and some of whose graduates now meet at a local restaurant.
“The area that they’ve got to work in is so small, and all we need is a little breathing room, you know?” Cutright told the officials. “But I dare you to find somebody that doesn’t praise the clinic. They look after us. They look after us well.”
“Yes, agreed,” said Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center Director Maria Andrews, “and actually, as the clinic demand increases, we’re also looking to increase the number of providers that are there as well. So by utilizing the clinic and encouraging your fellow veterans to utilize the clinic, then that would give us more workload to justify expanding the clinic.”
The Statesboro clinic now has more than 850 enrolled patients, reported Dr. Charles Green, chief of ambulatory care for the Medical Center. The clinic opened in 2013 as a telehealth site, where patients were seen by nurses in person but examined by doctors in Augusta over a two-way computer hookup. But Dr. Emory Smith has been seeing veterans there in person, full-time since May.
Green announced that a second physician, Dr. David Causey, will see patients at the clinic on a three- to six-month temporary contractual basis beginning Nov. 30. Green said he hopes this arrangement can be a bridge to the clinic qualifying for a second patient care team. Each team consists of one doctor, two nurses and one clerk.
Andrews cited 1,200 veterans as the patient load that would qualify the clinic for the additional staff. Green said he expects this to be reached next year.
“The second issue is the space, and certainly we feel your pain a little bit there,” Green told veterans. “We are crowded in that particular area, it’s already been identified, our space planner is aware of this, and we’ll be looking for additional space, certainly if we go up to two full-time providers with the support that they need.”
The clinic on Northside Drive East occupies leased space in a building shared with a private medical practice. Any future space would also have to be leased, and a proposal put up for bids, Andrews said.
“I want to under-promise and over-deliver,” she said. “If we were to expand the space for Statesboro, you’re looking at, at least, a year or more process. Typically it takes two years.”
Most veterans who spoke up expressed satisfaction with the care they receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital and its clinics, but also some frustration with steps it takes to get that care, such as struggles with the phone system and paperwork.
“Some of my battle buddies and I have talked about this before. What you get there is great. The care is fantastic; it’s wonderful,” said Craig McGlone. “It’s just getting there, just wading through the paperwork. … Every time I turn around there’s a new form I’m supposed to fill out, something I forgot to do.”
McGlone, 54, a Guyton resident who retired from the Army in 2013 after 22-year career and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, addressed these remarks to the head table. Answering, Richard Banks from the Veterans Benefits Administration told veterans about a 1-800 number to call and that the agency partners with organizations such as the VFW, AMVETS, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans to assist veterans in filing forms.
Injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq, McGlone was talking specifically about a compensation claim and treatment for migraine headaches. While still at the meeting, he also talked one-on-one with a patient advocate from the VA Medical Center’s outreach team.
Addressing veterans’ needs and concerns was the purpose behind the meeting, Andrews said.
Arriving at the Augusta center in February, she found it in good shape in some ways but “in other ways there is some opportunity for improvement, as is true of any healthcare organization,” she said in an interview. Andrews has worked for the VA for 37 years was director of another center and assistant director at two others.
“Sometimes we have opportunities to improve processes, sometimes we need to improve technology, and we take that very seriously,” she said.
The center, with its hospital and six clinics in Augusta and community clinics in Statesboro and Athens, Georgia, and Aiken, South Carolina, serves about 45,000 veterans in 17 Georgia and seven South Carolina counties.
Tom Kingery, 76, a Statesboro resident who once served on Navy submarines, also praised the clinic’s quality of care but asked what is being done to improve the Augusta center’s handling of phone calls.
Gary Brunson, in charge of the call center, had an answer. The Augusta-based health system, which receives thousands of calls each day, has expanded from four or five people answering phones to having 18 trained staff members on that task since April, and plans to add three more. The count of abandoned calls, where the people calling hang up after becoming frustrated, has dropped from about 50 percent to 2 percent, with an average answer time now of seven seconds, he and Andrews reported.
Another staff member, Maybell Tharrington, informed veterans about MyHealtheVet. Pronounced “My Healthy Vet,” it’s an online service that lets veterans email their doctors, get prescriptions filled and check their medical records through a secure connection, she said.
Free flu shots were also available during the town hall meeting. Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center had 18 employees there, including its medical chief of staff, Dr. Dr. Ladi Kukoyi, as well as Andrews and her assistants. Banks represented the benefits agency, and Paul Lynch was there for U.S. Rep. Rick Allen.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.