Rep. Julia Brownley got a firsthand look at the operations of Oxnard's outpatient facility for veterans on Tuesday, greeting patients and speaking with staff about their needs.
The outpatient clinic on Universe Circle has been identified as having one of the worst backlogs for patient appointments. Compared to other Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinics, the Oxnard facility is one of the worst in the country for meeting the standard of seeing patients within 30 days.
In recent months, the department has hired new leaders in an effort to address the problems. Brownley, D-Westlake Village, heard about some of those issues during her tour of the clinic, which was her second visit.
“If you had one wish to help this facility out, what would it be?” Brownley asked Dr. Neal Schwartz, an osteopathic physician at the clinic.
Schwartz told Brownley the root cause of the staffing problems is the long credential process that occurs when the clinic needs to hire somebody. He said that when the clinic loses a doctor, it can take four months to hire a new one.
Brownley said she's aware of the issue, which is a nationwide problem at the department.
“We have to shorten the system. Even moving people from one VA to another should be a straightforward issue, but that, too, can take too long,” Brownley said. “I'm not sure I know what the solutions are except we need the resources and support necessary for the VA to do this a lot quicker. It's the juggernaut that blocks getting the appropriate staffing.”
Brownley walked through the facility after leading a hearing earlier in the morning at Camarillo Library about the use of telemedicine in the veterans healthcare system.
The congresswoman got to try the computer system herself, using the video conference technology to speak to a doctor in Los Angeles.
Called telehealth, the technology allows patients to see their doctors in a different location. In the mental health field, it allows patients to stay home. For primary care services, the patient goes to the clinic and communicates with a doctor in another office.
Telehealth is one way for clinics to speed up the appointment waiting process. The patient can opt for a face-to-face doctor visit but wait longer or see a doctor from a remote location with a shorter wait. Doctors who use telehealth have the ability to order X-rays or lab tests the way a typical doctor would.
Richard Neufeld, a telehealth clinical technician, said he sees patients who are a bit reluctant to use telehealth but change their minds after trying it.
“Ninety percent of patients come in and they don't understand the technology,” Neufeld explained to Brownley. “But the patient comes to realize there is no difference between the screen and face to face. There's a medical assistant or a (nurse) here and can do anything whether there was a doctor in the room or not. And then they walk out and go, 'Wow, what a great program.' “
Experts say telehealth is one way to cut the long wait times and it also provides specialized care to patients. In smaller cities, patients might have to travel far to find a specialized doctor.
Brownley said telehealth may work for some but not others and what's important is that the patient and the doctor get to make that decision.
“It's a good augmentation of the medical staff here,” she said.
The Oxnard clinic moved to a larger space late last year. The goal is to provide faster service for veterans and offer specialty care so patients don't have to drive to Los Angeles to get it.
“I'm very pleased we finally have a larger facility and now we're fully staffed,” Brownley said. “I think we're at a very important crossroads in terms of this facility doing a much better job serving our veterans.”