The new Charlotte VA Health Care Center has been open since April. But officials are still adding services and streamlining procedures to improve access for veterans.
Starting Aug. 15, patients of the center’s primary care doctors who refer them to VA specialists will not have to wait for callbacks to get those appointments. In a change of practice, they’ll be able to schedule those visits before they leave.
Also, same-day appointments are now available in some specialties for veterans who enroll for VA benefits and need immediate care. And new services, such as kidney dialysis and physical therapy, will be added in coming weeks.
“We’re working very hard to improve access in a number of different ways,” said Kaye Green, director of the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury.
After horror stories about long waits for appointments at other VA centers across the country, Green said the Salisbury system has worked hard to makes things easier and quicker for veterans. In the Salisbury system, the average wait today for a new patient is 14 days for a primary care visit and 23 days for specialty care. That compares to 19 days for primary care and 26 specialty care two years ago.
In a recent interview, Green outlined an array of changes for the Charlotte health center. She oversees the Salisbury VA system that includes the new outpatient center at 3506 W. Tyvola Road and also the older center at 8601 University East Drive in University City.
The new scheduling system will replace the old practice of allowing veterans to leave the center without having appointments for their next visit. VA schedulers sometimes found it hard to reach veterans at home, Green said. “This cuts out that entire middle step, and it’s a much more streamlined process.”
She added that the VA has “a really big push for same-day access when possible.”
About 40 veterans come to the Charlotte health center every day to inquire about eligibility or enrollment, and 12 to 15 can get same-day appointments with primary care doctors if they need immediate care, said Dr. Jeff Kuch, medical director for the Charlotte center. The focus currently is on same-day appointments in audiology, dermatology, mental health and primary care.
Kuch said he recently saw a patient whose hearing was damaged in the Korean War. He was “able to walk over and get a hearing test the same day.” Another patient with a possible skin cancer was able to get a biopsy from a dermatologist who had a cancellation that day, Kuch said. “The patient came back over and said, ‘In the private sector, I’d have to wait months to see a dermatologist.’”
Other services coming to the Charlotte center:
▪ By late August, veterans will be able to get outpatient kidney dialysis for the first time in the Salisbury system. The dialysis unit has capacity to treat 17 patients at a time. The hospital has been offering inpatient dialysis, but most veterans needing outpatient dialysis have gone to non-VA locations where the service is covered by Medicare or private insurance.
▪ Also in August, physical medicine and rehabilitation will be offered. That means veterans will be able to get physical and occupational therapy onsite, without having to drive to Salisbury or make appointments at private offices in the area.
▪ A dental clinic will open in September – a service that’s new to Charlotte.
▪ Next year, the Charlotte center plans to begin offering outpatient surgery for health problems, such as cataracts, hernias and lower-risk procedures. Veterans who need emergency care or hospitalization are directed to the closest VA hospital in Salisbury.
Green said veterans are also benefiting from the VA’s effort to “simplify processes” and implement employee suggestions.
For example, Dr. Subbarao Pemmaraju, chief of staff for the Salisbury system, suggested a change in the way veterans get prosthetic devices, such as arm braces and crutches. When he came to Salisbury three years ago, Pemmaraju said it could take 60 to 90 days to get compression stockings for patients with swollen legs. Now, those devices are “embedded” in primary care offices so veterans don’t have to wait.
“It didn’t make sense when a veteran’s legs are swollen today (that they would) get compression stockings two months later,” Pemmaraju said. “.…So we cut through the system.”
To encourage employee suggestions, the center has posted more than 70 “Continuous Improvement Boards” around the building where workers can leave notes with their ideas. Administrators update the boards to show when the notes have been read and if the ideas are being implemented.
Veterans who want information or appointments should call 800-706-9126 or 704 329-1300.
Veterans can also get prescription refills or communicate with their providers through “secure messaging” online at My HealtheVet, www.myhealth.va.gov/index.html. Veterans must sign up for the service in person, but after that it can be accessed through their personal computers. The center’s email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – is checked at least once a day.