To an audience that included local veterans advocates and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, officials at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics reported major improvements since October.

Members of the Veterans Affairs clinic's leadership team touted dramatically reduced physician vacancies and internal surveys pointing to improved patient satisfaction during a roundtable event Tuesday. 

Walden showed visible surprise as Wolfgang Agotta, chief for veteran experience and community operations, reported "very, very positive" responses from the clinic's internal surveys.

According to SORCC Chief of Staff Dr. Shawkat Dhanani, about 800 primary patients were asked to rate their experience with their doctor on a scale of 1 to 10. Dhanani said the surveys also provided an opportunity for patients and doctors to address any unresolved issues.

"Believe it or not, more than 80 percent have rated their providers as a 9 or a 10," Dhanani said. "That's a very high number compared to the private sector." 

"Wow, that's impressive," Walden said. "And that's a big enough sample if you've got seven or eight hundred."

The internal surveys reflect SORCC initiatives to address "customer service and patient experience," according to Agotta, adding that small teams throughout the clinic have been working to improve employee engagement and patient care.

The patient surveys are a dramatic improvement over SORCC's ratings in recent years. In June 2016, SORCC was rated a one-star facility by the Department of Veterans Affairs, with below-average scores in the areas of access to care, patient satisfaction and preventive measures.

Agotta expressed gratitude for Walden's support of the Veterans Choice Program, which allows VA beneficiaries to receive healthcare from other providers.

"We have a lot of veterans that really appreciate the access and the outcomes with that," Agotta said. "As you've stated before, this is not a move towards privatization, it's just a better partnership with the private sector."

Aside from two positions that both have applicants "in the pipeline," the clinic's budgeted physician openings are otherwise filled, according to Dhanani. Earlier this year, SORCC had "lost a lot of providers" in its primary care program, along with specialists. All specialist positions have been filled and Dhanani said it's the first time in his two years at SORCC that the clinic has come so close to filling all its vacancies. 

"I think in the next three or four months we'll be fully staffed," Dhanani said.

Dhanani said he owed the staffing improvements to pay adjustments, reassigning certain clinical tasks previously performed by physicians to administrative staff, and the hiring of a clinic recruiter, who's also a nurse. He said he wants patients who don't receive good service to reach out to him or veteran experience officers, and his ultimate goal is for the VA SORCC to be hands-down patients' preferred provider.

"They should reach out to us over their neighborhood doctor," Dhanani said. "That's where we want to get."

Walden used the meeting to talk about his new Doctors for Veterans Act, intended to reduce physician losses in the VA healthcare system through more generous assistance with student loans, more than doubling the amount of student loan forgiveness to match the $60,000 other federal agencies offer.

"The VA's limited to about $24,000 under the law. So our legislation would expand this so you could also give loan forgiveness to treat veterans up to $60,000," Walden said. "I think that could help on this issue."

Walden also touched on his VA Medical Scribes Pilot Act, recently passed in the House. 

"This bill would set up pilot programs within the VA, so we can have some pilots out there to test adding scribes to the process so that the trained professionals that give the healthcare can focus on that and other trained professionals can focus on the paperwork," Walden said.

Walden said that a core problem with VA clinics throughout his district — La Grande, Klamath Falls, Bend and White City — is turnover.

"They've got different issues, too, but a lot of them get back to a lack of providers and maintaining providers in the facilities," Walden said. "In some of these clinics, providers are in and out every year or two — that's not good for the patients."

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTCrimeBeat.