San Diego VA Reports Progress In Veterans' Care

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Robert Smith, director of the San Diego VA Health Administration talks to reporters about progress made in veteran wait times, July 14, 2016.

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San Diego VA Reports Progress In Veterans’ Care

San Diego County veterans aren’t waiting as long for disability and health care, according to San Diego’s top VA officials, who held a news conference on Thursday to give a status update.

Disability benefits now take about three months, compared to 10 months in 2013. The wait for mental health care has been cut in half compared to last year, with the wait in May about five days, said Robert Smith, director of the San Diego VA Health Administration.

“Same day visits are normally available for urgent issues, and we also offer extended hours for primary care in the early mornings and evenings,” Smith said.

More clinical staff, expanded technology and increased services have optimized patient health care, Smith said.

“Most notably, we’re working to expand in innovative ways our 'telehealth' and 'telemental health services'— particularly for veterans in rural areas, but really throughout the health care system,” Smith said.

This kind of treatment is provided using electronics or telecommunication technology.

“And as you might imagine, for individuals with very severe PTSD who have trouble getting out of the house, that may in fact be the only way in which appropriate mental health care services can be provided,” Smith said.

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The improvements come two years after a national VA audit found a backlog of benefits claims and long wait times for health care.

The Veterans Benefits Administration “has undergone its most significant transformation in its history to improve delivery of benefits,” said Patrick Prieb, director of the San Diego VA Regional Benefit Office.

Prieb said 99.7 percent of benefits claims were filed electronically, increasing the speed and accuracy compared to the previous paper-intensive process.

“So far this year we’ve completed 8,700 dependency claims, which is a 38 percent increase compared to the same time last year,” Prieb added.

Despite all of the progress the VA system has made, challenges remain, Prieb said.

“We do understand that there’s more work to be done,” he said. “We recently increased resources to improve processing for dependency claims and appeals as well.”

The San Diego VA has seen a steady 5 percent per year increase in the number of veterans it's serving, partly due to more post-9/11 service members who are entering the system, Smith said.

“It is predicted that the total number of veterans within the United States will peak sometime around 2016 to 2017 as older veterans age and pass on,” he said.

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