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HARLINGEN, RGV – As he bows out of office after 20 years as a member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa says he is particularly pleased to have focused on healthcare for South Texas veterans.

“It has been honor to serve the last 20 years representing the 15th Congressional District and to have placed veterans’ affairs as one of the highest priorities on my agenda,” Hinojosa told the Rio Grande Guardian.

One of Hinojosa’s last major initiatives in Congress was to get Rio Grande Valley hospitals to participate fully in the Veterans Choice program administered by TriWest Healthcare Alliance on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Valley Baptist Health System and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance have taken up the challenge and now proudly display the huge Veterans Choice banners.

“These hospitals have participated in the Veterans Choice Program since its inception, but will now visibly be identified as such. Veterans across the Rio Grande Valley will know they can receive care at these excellent hospitals, and will be finally recognized for their honorable service to our country,” Hinojosa told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Dr. Gene Migliaccio, executive director for delivery operations at the Department of Veterans Affairs, agreed. “These are the first two hospitals in the nation to display the Veterans Choice program signage. It really is a visible sign to the community in terms of their commitment,” he said.

Migliaccio and Hinojosa unveiled the new signage at a ceremony at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen.

“The new signage shows these two hospitals are committed to helping our veterans in this area. It shows they are a welcoming place for healthcare for the men and women that have served our nation. It shows they have joined our program, Veterans Choice,” Migliaccio said.

He pointed out that the Veterans Choice program started almost two years ago. “The uptake has been slow but we have seen over the last year more and more hospitals and physician groups join us,” Migliaccio added.

Hinojosa said in his mind there are two major aspects to the Veterans Choice program. First, the time it takes for veterans to get a medical appointment will be reduced. And, second, that hospitals and physician groups will get paid for their services to veterans in much quicker fashion.

“Before, it was taking six months, a year, for hospitals and doctors to get paid. We now have a new system for request for payments. It is a win-win, which will mean we will have more doctors available to take care of our veterans,” Hinojosa said.

“I like the new signs because they will be seen half a mile away. We wanted the sign to be big and beautiful and easy to see and read. It will give veterans and their families the assurance that from now on there will be shorter waiting times. If you meet the criteria, you will get a shorter wait time.”

Hinojosa thanked U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, Henry Cuellar, and Joaquin Castro for helping him negotiate an agreement between TriWest, the VA and the two hospital systems in South Texas – Valley Baptist and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

Pilot Project

In September, Hinojosa held a news conference at the UT Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen to announce a breakthrough in negotiations between the hospitals, TriWest and the VA. At the event, Hinojosa said a 90-day pilot project to improve VA community care coordination at Valley Baptist had proved successful.

“I am pleased with the tremendous accomplishments we have achieved during our 90-day VA Community Care collaborative effort with TriWest, VA, and local healthcare providers,” Hinojosa said at the news conference. “This coalition of congressional, federal, and local stakeholders is the first of its kind in the nation to address challenges in VA Community Care. Not only have we immediately increased cash flow for our providers, but also identified a number of areas where we can improve care coordination in the long term.”

Hinojosa said he would be sending out a one-page guide to South Texas healthcare providers explaining the new program. “In my view, provider education is one of the most crucial opportunities for improvement, which is why I have created a simple one page guide,” Hinojosa said. “We are also establishing work groups to dissect each bureaucratic process and requirement that is impeding veterans’ access to community care.”

Dr. Richard Stone is principal deputy undersecretary for health at the VA. At the news conference, Stone thanked Hinojosa “for his leadership and the countless hours he has given in this collective effort to make sure that Veterans in this community get the proper care that they need.”

Stone said it had been an honor to work with Hinojosa on the rollout of the program.

“With more than 30,000 Veterans in the Deep South Texas community who depend on VA for their healthcare, I am pleased that we are making much needed improvements to programs to insure our Veterans get the timely care they deserve while making certain providers are paid on time. We will continue our commitment to care for those ‘who have borne the battle,’ and we’re proud to have such dedicated community partners who share in this noble mission,” Stone said.

Speaking for TriWest Healthcare Alliance was President and CEO Dave McIntyre. “It is our sincere privilege to stand alongside VA, amazing South Texas hospitals, and 1,800 local health care providers in this roll-up-your-sleeves effort led by Congressman Hinojosa over the last 90 days. There is no community that better exemplifies the importance of working together than right here in the Rio Grande Valley. Collectively, we have made much needed improvements, and I look forward to the next 90 days and what the future holds here for the health care of our veterans. We continue to work together and ensure that we keep the trajectory moving forward in this effort to provide timely and proper care for our veterans,” McIntyre said.

Manny Vela, CEO and president of Valley Baptist Health System, and Connie Humphrey, senior vice president and special counsel for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, offered a community provider perspective.

Vela said: “Thank you to Congressman Hinojosa, TriWest, and VA for your collaboration in this 90-day effort to address the important issues of coordination improvements, ensuring that provider claims get paid on time, and for officially helping to certify Valley Baptist Medical Center as a Veterans Choice program provider. We have excellent care in our community, and I am proud to continue working on this effort to ensure quality and timely care for our Valley veterans.”

Humphrey said: “We’ve been very proud to serve our veterans. I want to thank the VA and TriWest for working with us, and Congressman Hinojosa for bringing the coalition together. We’ve seen a significant reduction in the time it takes our claims to be processed, and we’ve been on the phone calling you about individual claims. You all have really worked with us to get that process going and we want to thank you for that. We’ll continue working with this coalition, because Doctors Hospital wants to be a partner. We want to continue doing our best to serve the veterans.”

Jose Maria Vasquez, commander of America’s Last Patrol, thanked Hinojosa for his 20 years of service and for his commitment to veterans’ issues. However, he said he still wanted to see a fully-fledged veteran’s hospital in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We still need a veteran’s hospital. It (the Veterans Choice program) is good and it has been getting gooder (sic). But it is not good enough. Not yet,” Vasquez said.

Editor’s Note: Videojournalist Apolonio ‘Apol’ Sandoval, Jr., assisted with this story from Harlingen, Texas.