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HARLINGEN, RGV – Congressman Rubén Hinojosa wants to see new signage at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg so huge that motorists can easily see it as they drive by.

The signage will have the name of the hospital plus the words “Veterans Choice Program Provider.”

Veterans Choice is the name of a community care program the VA offers in areas where there is not a veterans’ hospital.

“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 said.

The signage will go up within the next 90 days, Hinojosa said. Another notable feature of the coming months, Hinojosa said, would be doctors and hospitals being “much more aggressive” in accepting veterans who need medical care. “And the payments to these providers will be made expeditiously and that will make a big difference in the attitude of hospital administrators, as well as doctors who can offer those services in their respective clinics,” he said.

Asked how big he wants the Veterans Choice signs to be, Hinojosa said: “I told the hospitals, I want the signs to be so large that people driving their car would be able to see it easily. The signage has been approved by the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald.”

Asked if this means Valley Baptist and DHR can now be classified as veterans’ hospitals, Hinojosa said: “They are already certified. That was done in the last 90 days. They are certified and approved to deal with veterans.”

So, do we now have two Veterans Hospitals in the Valley? “Well, I can’t say they are veterans’ hospitals because they do not have VA signage and they do not get paid by the VA. But, I can tell you the level of healthcare for veterans is going to improve tremendously as a result of this coalition,” Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa made these comments in interviews with reporters following a news conference at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen on Monday. Hinojosa said a huge media campaign, in English and Spanish, would be conducted over the next 90 days to ensure veterans and their families know about the new level of service at the two hospitals. “Every 30 days we are going to have mailers go out and commercials on TV and on radio so we can raise the level of awareness of this new program for veterans. It is going to be the best we have ever had.”

As first reported in the Rio Grande Guardian, the VA and TriWest Healthcare have significantly reduced the percentage of payment claims for VA Community Care (VACC) from Valley Baptist that are dismissed. The dismissal rate dropped from 50 percent to about ten percent over a 90-day trial period. As a result, Valley Baptist and Hinojosa believe that more doctors will stay in the VA’s community care network. This, in turn, will lead to greater access to healthcare for veterans in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Over the last 90 days, millions of dollars owed to doctors and hospitals has been paid in more timely fashion,” said Hinojosa, pointing out that he has helped establish work groups to “dissect each bureaucratic process and requirement” that is impeding veterans’ access to community care.

“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,” he said.

Hinojosa said the level of cooperation and coordination is unprecedented. “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.”

At the news conference, Dr. Richard Stone, Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health, spoke on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was accompanied by Dr. Gene Migliaccio, executive director of Delivery Operations and Joe Enderle, director of Claims Adjudication and Reimbursement in the Office of VA Community Care, and Joe Dalpiaz, network director of Veteran Integrated Service Network (VISN) 17. Representing the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System were Director Joe Perez, Community Care Chief Efren Cerda-Cantu, Customer Service Manager Hugo Martinez, and Public Affairs Officer Reynaldo Leal.

“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 ensure 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. With him were South Regional Director Gina Waild and TVSC Operations Supervisor Hermes Gonzalez, as well as Advisors Chet Edwards, Lindsey Davis Stover, and Josh Taylor.

“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,” McIntyre said.

“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.”

Manny Vela, CEO and President of Valley Baptist Health System, and Connie Humphrey, Senior Vice President and Special Counsel of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, offered a community provider perspective.

“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,” Vela said. “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 stated: “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.”

Editor’s Note: The main images accompanying this story were taken by Shon Gonzalez of the Rio Grande Guardian. For more coverage of the South Texas VA Community Care Initiative, click here, here, and here.