El Paso VA director talks about changes to system, staffing and care

Long wait times and a revolving door of leadership have plagued the El Paso VA health system for years.

Almost four months after he took over as El Paso VA director, retired Army Col. Michael Amaral sat down with KFOX14 for an exclusive interview about the changes he's made so far.

He said his first change was to make sure the staff is treating veteran patients with respect and dignity anytime they walk into the building.

"That's what most people want -- to be acknowledged, and that validation that I exist, I'm not just a commodity moving through your system," Amaral said. "There are stil some challenges and there are always going to be, but in terms of just the demeanor of my staff when they come in, they're noticing a difference. They're noticing a more positive attitude."

Amaral said right now one of his biggest challenges is attracting good health care providers to El Paso.

"That's the biggest problem, is attracting, and again it's not just the VA," Amaral said. "I know from my time at William Beaumont the DOD had the same problems, attracting quality civilian employees."

Amaral said he recently hired a recruiter to seek out providers to fill open spots.

"Right now I'm down to about five primary care providers, which equates to somewhere around 5,000 patients being able to access or system," he said. "We still take care of them -- we offer to opt them into our choice program so that they can get their primary care from a civilian provider that we pay for."

Amaral also said there are 21 openings for mental health providers.

Last month, the El Paso VA announced it was affected by a federal hiring freeze. While Amaral said it's a temporary challenge, it doesn't prevent him from filling all roles.

"We can still bring on physicians, nurses, our front desk people, positions like that," he said.

Amaral also said patients can help reduce wait times by making sure they come to their scheduled appointments.

"Right now we are at about a 10 percent no-show rate for primary care," he said. "Mental health is closer to 20 percent. And those are appointments that other veterans could use."

A VA outpatient facility in west El Paso is also in the works.

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