Reframed SWS visits make shining debut

Veterans offered a range of observations, praise and questions related to care at the James Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa during an American Legion System Worth Saving (SWS) town hall Jan. 29.

In the past, the town hall was the first opportunity for American Legion representatives to have conversations about care at a particular VA. The Tampa visit was the first to incorporate a subtle but vital change. In the weeks preceding the town hall, American Legion volunteers and staff members conducted nine virtual meetings with VA representatives to get a better understanding of the facility’s successes, challenges and more.

American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Autrey James, who was among those attending the virtual meetings, presided over the town hall, hosted by Legion Post 5.

“Now we are following up with an in-person visit in Florida,” he said. “The idea is that we have already got a lot more information and we can be more focused on the different and unique aspects of this VA facility. For example, it gives us more time to spend on the ground with the polytrauma team there.”

Topics raised during the town hall included specialty care visits, community care, wait times for appointments, shelters for homeless women veterans, long commutes to appointments and more. In Florida and other states, VA has alleviated long travel to VA centers by covering Uber rides for veterans through the VHA-Uber Health Connect initiative.

“We want to make sure VA is our No. 1 care system for veterans,” James said. “System Worth Saving is a unique program. We have this cooperative effort with the VA. The Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission — that’s what our whole mission is, to make sure we have cooperation with the VA.”

The information gathered from the virtual exchanges, town hall and subsequent meetings with VA executives, clinicians and others will be compiled into a report to be shared with members of Congress, VA and others.

“One of the things I want to hear from the VA staff is what they need from Congress,” said James, noting that he will accompany the American Legion national commander when he presents the Legion’s priorities to Congress in March.

During the town hall, American Legion officials, VA staff and others addressed issues and questions raised by veterans related to their health-care experiences at the Tampa VA. Another addition to the SWS visit was having a claims representatives at the town hall to assist veterans. Representing the Legion were Philip Du, deputy director of Benefits and Claims, and Marty Callaghan, veterans disability claims specialist, while VA also provided patient advocates.

Army veteran Carlos Gill, the second vice commander at Post 5, coordinated the event. He is also the VAVS representative for the Tampa VA, where he gets his health care.

“I love it,” he said. “The care at the VA is awesome. I would suggest that all veterans in our area and those that come from different states also go to the VA because the facilities are very above par.”

Alan Cohen, National VA&R Commission vice chairman, explained why it’s so important for such a visit to take place in Florida, where 1.6 million veterans live.

“It’s important for the VA here in Florida to understand that we partner with them, encourage and do everything we possibly can to support their efforts for taking care of veterans,” said Cohen, department VA&R chairman and a member of Post 321 in Cooper City, Fla. “So when we meet with clinicians and administrators we try to impress that we are the good guys and we are on their side.”

Another benefit of these visits is that the Legion can pass along successful initiatives from one VA to another one. Cohen was quick to point out an example.

“The polytrauma unit here at James Haley hospital is second to none in this country,” he said. “The work they do there is just absolutely stunning.”

By all counts, the adjusted approach was off to a good start.

“Success would look like we would be much more in tandem with the entire staff at James  Haley hospital, that they view us as partners and that they know we are not here for any adversarial reasons,” Cohen said. “If that is the big takeaway at the end of the week, I would consider it a success.”

Additional visits this year are planned for Phoenix, Chicago and other cities.