New VA Director Identifies Local Priorities As Agency Prepares For Overhaul

by Morgan Montalvo 

WOAI News 

The new director of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System has launched a 180-day plan to prepare for rollout of the Mission Act, an overhaul of the program that allows VA patients to access health care from civilian providers, and identify the future needs of a fast-growing veterans population in the San Antonio area, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Christopher Sandles is in his fifth week as head of VA facilities in San Antonio, Kerrville and Victoria. He says health care staff recruitment, facility upgrades and improving local administration of the agency's Community Care and Caregivers programs are high on the list of items that will receive attention from all staff levels.

The VA's Community Care program allows patients to be treated by in-network contractors when distance from a VA facility, wait times or types of required care prevent timely resolution. The Caregivers program pays family members who provide home health care for qualifying veterans.

Sandles says over the next 10 years the number of veterans living in the STVHCS service area will increase by 27 percent, and 37 percent by 2040, prompting an examination of which services require additional agency resources, or might be better provided by the VA's civilian health care network.

"Some examples might be spinal cord injury, could be primary care, could be mental health," he says. 

As the June 6 lauch date for the MIssion Act approaches, Sandles says the local VA has been adding information technology staff to support inceased online support for the program, mandated to streamline payment to network providers and increase patient access to non-VA facilities and specialists.

A few days ago VA Secretary Robert Wilkie expressed to a Congressional panel his concerns about his agency's IT improvement timeline and ability to support Mission Act demands.

"Whether it's June Sixth or July Sixth," Sandle says of the impending Mission Act implementation, "my expectation is that we're ready, whatever that date might be, and we're going through the process right now to ensure that's the case."

Sandle says other areas where STVHCS is moving forward include: increased diagnosis by telemedicine, including a smart phone app that allows a doctor or nurse to consult with a patient; the Audie Murphy VA Hospital's designation as a Pathways to Excellence facility by the American Nurse's Credentialing Center; and new protocols that allow employees to quickly report their mistakes.

STVHCS also is planning a series of online town halls, including one to address the needs of female veterans, he says. 

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