U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin in early June pronounced the American veterans health care system to be in “critical condition.” One northwest Arkansas VA hospital, however, appears to be thriving, and that prompted U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R-3rd District) to invite Shulkin to take a look.
After an early morning tour of the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville Monday, Shulkin, at a press conference on the grounds, characterized the forested campus facility as extraordinary. “It is a five-star facility. That means it is the very top of performance across the country in VA’s.”
The 58-bed Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, which also operates six outpatient clinics in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, serves 54,000 veterans annually. Appointment wait times average one day, including mental health consultations and four days for specialists. But many VAs continue to struggling to meet demand. Dr. Shulkin, a board-certified internist and hospital administrator who served as VA Undersecretary in the Obama administration for 18 months, conducted a nation-wide review after he was appointed by President Trump in February to lead the VA. He charted long appointment wait times, a medical staff deficit, outdated data systems and lax employee accountability.
“The V.A. system has for decades, spanning multiple administrations, failed to take on many hard decisions including modernization,” he told media and officials seated in the Fayetteville VA auditorium.
Shulkin plans to upgrade the VA’s electronic health records database and telephone system, and shutter 1,100 aging buildings across the VA complex.
“And we are only going to invest in capital infrastructure that’s needed for the future. But where we do determine that’s needed, we want that to be state-of-the-art facilities.”
Shulkin pointed to a new mental health center under construction on the Fayetteville VA campus as an example, scheduled to open later this year. Nationwide, VA administration and medical center staff will also undergo evaluation, he says, with help from a recently approved federal accountability measure.
“Once again this a good example of something that took decades over past administrations of understanding,” he says. “We have a problem in the VA of allowing people to maintain their jobs when they clearly have lost their values of what we hold dear in terms of it being a privilege to take care of our country’s veterans.”
Shulkin plans to clean house with the passage by Congress this month of the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The bill will also allow direct hiring authority by local VA administrations to attract competent medical staff from the private sector. Shulkin is calling for a zero-tolerance policy for drug diversion. Pharmacy and medical staff at 160 VA medical centers and 1,000 clinics, it was recently reported by AP, were caught stealing narcotics.
The VA is also preparing to meet an influx of aging baby boomers. “Our primary strategy is to keep veterans at home.”
But Shulkin also plans to deliver grants to states to build-out skilled nursing facilities for aging vets. Currently, Arkansas has two long-term care facilities — one in Fayetteville, another in Little Rock.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee (R-1st District) accompanied Shulkin on his visit to northwest Arkansas.
“When I got to Congress in 2009, we spent $90 billion dollars on VA cemetery care, health care and disability benefits. Today that’s over $180 billion dollars.”
Roe, a doctor who served as an Army physician in Korea in the early 1970s, chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He's in charge of expansion of the Veterans Choice program that enables veterans to choose doctors outside of the VA system. In April Trump extended funding to help authorize such medical appointments for millions of veterans.
Womack, along with with Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks Medical Director Bryan Matthews and U.S. Rep. French Hill (R-2nd District) spent the morning with Shulkin visiting hospitalized veterans and attending staff.
“And to see the veterans’ eyes light up this morning when we toured the facilities makes my heart pound,” Womack says. “We have great care here and a lot of people in our region that truly want to participate in providing for the care and well-being of the men and women who have defended the freedoms we enjoy today.”
Afterward, Shulkin traveled to Walmart headquarters in Bentonville to learn supply chain management skills to improve VA logistics. He also attend a veterans roundtable lunch at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.