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Local clinic climbs up from bottom rating

HARLINGEN — It’s getting better.

The local veterans clinic is recovering a year after the Veterans Administration gave it one of its lowest ratings in Texas.

Earlier this week, the VA upgraded Harlingen’s Health Care Clinic from a 1 star to a 2 star rating out of a 5-star system for factors surrounding patient care.

A change in the clinic’s top administration, better coordination of outpatient care and an improved telephone response system helped the clinic climb to a ranking of 96 among the VA’s more than 130 health care systems, local officials said yesterday.

“We really made clear that veterans are our family,” Dr. Eric Kendle, the clinic’s acting chief of staff, said yesterday, referring to the message the new administration gave its staff.

Now, when veterans seek specialized care, they go from consultation to a scheduled appointment in a matter of hours, Kendle said during an interview.

“Our community care section is now the most efficient and fastest getting veterans into community care than any in the nation right now,” Kendle said.

Last year’s rating

In 2017, the clinic cited leadership and difficulty retaining nurses as factors that led the VA to give it the lowest rating among Texas’ eight health care systems.

The VA’s rating system is based on measures including employee and patient satisfaction, mental health care quality, response to veterans’ telephone calls and nurse retention, Jennifer Wood, the clinic’s acting deputy chief of staff, said.

“It gives us an overall snapshot of the quality service we deliver to our veterans,” Wood said, referring to the rating system.

Clinic’s overhaul

This year, the clinic climbed up the rating system as a result of a new administration’s work to better coordinate outpatient care.

“We implemented a number of changes,” Wood said.

At the clinic’s top administrative level, a new team has taken over the clinic’s operations.

Homero Martinez III, the clinic’s former associate director, has been named acting director.

Kendle, the former deputy chief of staff, oversees the clinic’s medical team as acting chief of staff.

Wood, the former associate chief of staff for mental health, has taken Kendle’s previous position.

After taking their administrative roles, the new team formed a task force to help develop a data base that works with area hospitals to better coordinate patient care, Wood said.

Then, she said, the clinic formed a team of nurses and social workers charged with tracking high-risk veterans and coordinating their treatment at area hospitals.

Wood said the clinic also worked to better coordinate veterans’ transition from inpatient to outpatient care.

The clinic also ensured all veterans receive the opportunity to enroll with a primary care physician — and then encourage them to do so, she said.

The new administration also overhauled the clinic’s telephone system, adding 10 clerks working a type of call center to better respond to veterans’ telephone requests.

“We want our veterans to call us and get their needs resolved with a single phone call,” Wood said.

Kendle believes the clinic will continue improving patient care.

“If we sustain improvements we made and remain on the track we’re on, we are going to improve,” he said.

How did Texas' VA facilities fare?

Big Spring – 2017-1; 2018-1

El Paso – 2017-1; 2018-1

Dallas – 2017-3; 2018-2

Houston – 2017-4; 2018-3

San Antonio – 2017-3; 2018-3

Temple – 2017-3; 2018-3

Amarillo – 2017-3; 2018-4