HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — “There’ve been some times I’d visit and I’d come out of the meeting and I felt like my head was exploding.”
That’s how U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) summarized previous trips to the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He’s referring to oversight that began about six years ago when the hospital was among the worst in the nation for wait times.
But Warner was much more upbeat following his Tuesday visit with new Executive Director Dr. Taquisa Simmons and other senior leadership. Simmons is the fourth person to run the medical center in recent years.
Warner said management told him earlier concern about the supply of personal protective equipment and test kits seems to have worked itself out. Now, the goal is to get more doses of the vaccine so more veterans can be protected.
Hampton has inoculated about 4,000 veterans so far at a rate of about 400 per week. Warner said he will put pressure on national Veterans Affairs leadership to provide more.
“The hope is to go up to 500 or more. I’m hoping I can get [Department of Veterans Affairs] Secretary Richard McDonough to increase even more the number of shots available here.”
Simmons let Warner know that the staff is ready to ramp up the number of vaccinations.
“The word I heard from management is ‘You get us as many shots as you can get us, and we’ll make sure they get into veterans’ arms,'” Warner said.
Warner said Hampton has made significant progress on wait times for primary care first visits. He challenged the staff about a year ago to shorten the wait times.
“I was hoping for 25 days. They’re actually at 15 days on average for all the facilities across Hampton Roads,” Warner said.
He wants to get wait times down to six or seven weeks for specialty care first visits, which take longer because of a shortage of providers. The reason for the shortage, Warner said, is money.
“The challenge has always been keeping doctors for the long-term. You can make a lot more money if you’re in private practice,” he said.
The update on the proposed outpatient clinic for the Southside was not as encouraging. It’s a project Warner calls “the never-ending journey.”
Veterans Affairs has had the approval to build a major outpatient clinic on the Southside since 2016. It would serve the bulk of the veteran population in Hampton Roads, saving them from having to cross the water.
“And then the Congressional Budget Office changed the rules for leasing facilities and said you had to have all 10 years of your lease payment paid for upfront. It was the epitome of bureaucracy getting in the way of a good outcome,” Warner said.
The number of veterans treated by the Hampton VA Medical Center and its related area clinics grew last year by 16%, one of the fastest rates in the country. Warner said the Department of Veterans Affairs hopes to have a major announcement on the project by May, but it’s still years away.
“This is something that won’t be open until 2024. I think we started on this in 2016,” Warner said.