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Local VA chief discusses health issues

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Isabel Duff, director of the Veterans Administration Southern Nevada Healthcare System, who was named to the position almost one year ago when the former director retired. The interview took place on my radio show.

Duff was trained as a nurse and began working for the VA in Salt Lake City in 1980. She said she has long had an affinity for veterans. Family members include a son, who is serving in the Army, and a dad, who served in World War II.

There also is an uncle who served in the Philippines and who was a prisoner of war and a cousin who was a Marine and who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But more than that, she said, “The VA truly provides a career and a mission that doesn’t change. That spoke to me both personally and professionally.”

Duff added that she was fortunate to have opportunities come to her and allow her to become involved in many projects and initiatives that gave her a “broad breadth and look at health care systems.”

Nevada is not her first directorship. She was the director at the VA facility in Long Beach, Calif., for more than five years, but was asked to hold down the spot in Nevada while the VA conducted a search for a permanent leader. As it turned out, she was the permanent one.

Before the massive VA facility was opened in North Las Vegas, much of the medical care for veterans took place at the Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital at Nellis Air Force Base. But she said the Nellis unit “remains a tremendous collaborator with us and a colleague in providing care.”

She pointed out that Las Vegas had long advocated needing a veterans hospital, “not just a system of clinics here.” She said the reason Congress funded the North Las Vegas structure and that the VA supported it is that “we demonstrated that we had a need, and we were sending many veterans out to the community, and we were using services and beds” at Nellis. So the intent was and is to bring as much of that care directly back into the VA system as possible, an objective that is being met.

“We provide care for veterans along the continuum. And I can’t think of another health care system in this nation that has the type of capability that we do to actually follow veterans throughout all their needs.”

I asked Duff if she would address a situation that occurred some months ago where a female veteran who was an outpatient was, according to friends who accompanied her, not given prompt treatment. She died and the friends contacted the press, which resulted in several negative stories concerning local VA health care.

Duff said that anytime a concern or issue arises, the VA assesses the situation to see if there was a gap in service or a gap in how the service was delivered. If corrections are needed to be made, “We make those corrections and we will reach out to the veterans, because that’s what’s most important.”

In this case, “There were quite a few allegations. We’ve taken a look at them … and the care that (the veteran) needed was there. How we would have preferred to deliver that, the settings, were not exactly what I would have preferred to do, what we as a system would have preferred to do, but we were trying to accommodate her needs.”

She said the local VA health care system delivers good care and has good people.

“Do we hit the mark every single time? No. Are we going to hit the mark every single time? No. And I wish I could tell you that we are.”

But she said that corrections in the system are made as time goes on, and she learned that some things did need to be addressed. Further, in her defense she said, “there were many aspects to (the veteran’s) care that were not reported.”

Duff also discussed the program known as “HealtheVet” (pronounced Healthy Vet) that allows veterans who are enrolled in the VA system to electronically access their medical records.

Established 10 years ago, she said the system allows appointments to be made online and reminds veterans about their specific care. She said her brother, a veteran, once demonstrated the system to her. He was able to pull up his laboratory results and determine if his doctor had additional communication or required more tests.

“It’s a secure system,” she said. With today’s heightened privacy concerns, she said she knows of no hacking of veterans’ health care records.

Another current VA topic is military sexual trauma. The Disabled American Veterans recently reported that MST claims are about to be re-evaluated by the government. Duff said that much like PTSD, MST was not brought to the surface as a major issue until some amount of time had passed. It has been learned that some veterans who end up homeless, have substance abuse problems or are in need of psychiatric or psychological care have suffered MST.

She said the Defense Department tries to focus on those issues and raise awareness. But she said news reports show that MST continues to be a problem. The VA is attempting to provide help.

Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He can be heard each Thursday from 8-9 p.m. on “The Veterans Reporter Radio Show” on KLAV-AM.

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