VA Hospital Meets Anniversary with More Anticipated Growth

The Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, which opened last year in Aurora. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

The Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, which opened last year in Aurora. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

By Doug Hrdlicka

The Rocky Mountain Regional Facility is considered state-of-the-art, but a year after opening there are still some old challenges to confront.

The Rocky Mountain Regional Facility, the latest to join the catalog of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals in Eastern Colorado, is meeting its one-year anniversary by sculpting new plans to curb the long wait times.

The facility, opened in July of last year, replaced its decades-old former location after nearly 14 years of development. But there are still complaints from some patients about difficulty in accessing care. 

In 2014, understaffed VA facilities, such as Phoenix, Arizona, manipulated wait time data to show patients waiting for a shorter period than was true. In 2016, an audit fronted by Senator Cory Gardner highlighted mismanagement and lack of accountability for improperly using unofficial wait lists. The next year, Denver was ranked among the worst in the nation for wait times, at an average of 42 days for primary care, 12 days past the national goal. 

Veterans Health Administration data shows that the following years the average declined to 40 days average at the Rocky Mountain Regional Facility and 39 days at the Denver facility on Claremont. After the construction of the new facility, the Regional Facility’s average declined again to 38 days, but the Rocky Mountain Regional Facility rose back to 42 days for primary care in February 2019.

“We’ve had some wait time challenges here,” said Duane Gill, Deputy Director for the VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System, “but it’s all been based around demand.”

To help accommodate this demand, the VA has launched a GAP and Contingency plan initiative since the opening of the new facility that would maintain staff to cover patient panels in the event the VA needs short and long-term replacements. 

“We’ve increased our staff here, we have wait time metrics for primary care and mental health. This year, we’ve increased 140 FTE (Full-time equivalent staff),” said Gill. 

VA staff also plan to lease new buildings, one in Aurora and another in Castle Rock, with the hope they will ease the strain on the new facility and shepherd in shorter wait times and better care. 

“Aurora would be the clinic that is the most space challenged,” said Gill. “And so we actually [are planning on a] new lease in Aurora, and essentially double the size of the current footprint that we have down there.”

The new facility was built without the anticipation of future growth and is now challenged for space, but was necessary. 

“The main reason is the old hospital was beyond its 50-year life, which if you know hospitals, you’ve got to stay current,” said Gill about the old Claremont facility, “that’s the driving reason and this is the replacement hospital.”

The two new facilities will be strategically placed in areas with a high veteran population, which have partially accounted for the higher than anticipated growth in the community. The new facilities offer some hope to veterans who have felt frustration with the VA over treatment delays.   

“I’m totally supportive of it, and unfortunately it’s just one of those things,” said patient Jennifer Hasler about opening the two new facilities. “You’re not going to see, necessarily, immediate results. It might be two, three, four, six months down the road and all the sudden you’re seeing reduced wait times across the board. It’s going to take patience. The only problem with that is that a lot of vets run out of patience, they’ve been trying for years to get the proper care.”

Hasler was in the Army for four years and is among those who have experienced the delays. Nearly two years ago, Hasler hyper-extended her knee on a trip while returning home to Denver from Salt Lake City. She was participating in a recovery program and PTSD treatment. After returning, the VA sent her to physical therapy, had her do an MRI and X-RAY and sent her to an orthodontist.

But the cycle of doctor visits stretched for months and Hasler went through a myriad of treatments, including additional physical therapy and injections. She said each only temporarily eased the pain, which was quickly growing in intensity. 

“I mean, it’s just been one wait after another, because they lost my paperwork and never made me an appointment at CU,” said Hasler. “I was supposed to do it over the winter time and they were supposed to have me do it November of last year, and I didn’t get my appointment until January.” 

It is critical that Hasler gets her knee repaired during the winter months because she works for Major League Baseball and is constantly running the length of the stadium. During the off-season she has time for both treatment — including a Rooster Comb injection — and recovery, but a series of delays in treatment left her recovering the first week of the season.

Marla Keown, a coworker of Hasler’s, had similarly experienced poor wait times with the VA. She was in the Army Reserve from July 2001 to July 2012 and gets prescriptions through the VA along with optical care. Her experience began when she booked to see an optometrist through the new facility. 

“Everything is the same, it’s just a fancier building now, I don’t feel any of the actual issues have been addressed or attempted to resolve,” said Keown. “Maybe hire more doctors or more secretaries or whatever it takes to have people answer the phones and get you scheduled in a timely manner.”

Keown says it took two months to get an appointment set after her claim was outsourced. That marks the beginning of setting new appointments. 

“Once that conversation started, I want to say I had a doctor’s appointment within two weeks,” said Keown. “Those doctors were all there to help me, and that was a fond experience, but waiting for that experience to come to be I don’t think should take two months.”

Kenneth Hayman, Army 1990-1995, like Hesler, injured his knee during a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. After completing the hike and arriving in Denver, he noted the injury had worsened significantly. He went into the emergency room and waited three weeks for a follow up, but attests to the care and timeliness of the VA.

“Once I got in, then they told me it was about a month and a half to get the MRI appointment and they actually contacted me rather quickly this time and said they had a couple dates that opened up. So they got me into the MRI very quickly,” said Hayman.

Hasler has seen both sides of the coin, as well. Despite the challenges in her physical treatment, she had a much different experience in her mental health treatment through the VA. 

“I went to rehab within six months of getting signed up, which is lightning fast when you think about having to get my patient records and all of my stuff transferred to the Salt Lake VA, so they can make me a patient in their system. It was incredible,” said Hasler.

Both patients and the VA say they are eager to see results of the new initiative. 

“A new facility will definitely help, it’s all a question of how fast can they build this new facility,” said Keown.

“It truly is a demand thing. We’ve cut it every different way we can and it comes down to just having enough providers and having enough space and so that’s really the biggest thing,” said Gill. ■