Carl Vinson VA Medical Center Director David Whitmer speaks to a crowd of about 50 people on Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the Birdsong Recreation Center, on the campus of the Georgia War Veterans Home in Milledgeville.

The Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin held a town hall for veterans Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the Georgia War Veterans Home in Milledgeville. 

About 50 people attended, including veterans from the community and residents and employees of the veterans home. 

An outpatient clinic at the veterans home is one of six clinics in a 49-county territory operated by the Dublin medical center. 

Carl Vinson VA Medical Center Director David Whitmer spoke for about 40 minutes, followed by Whole Health Director Dr. Matthew Geyer, who gave a presentation on strategies for preventative care via healthy practices.

An employee of U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-D10) was also present to field any questions or concerns and relay them to the congressman.

Whitmer said a town hall is scheduled twice yearly at each of the clinics operated by the VA, as well as every quarter in Dublin.

“The format of our town halls is to spend about 40 minutes or so to give you some updates on things since the last town hall we had, then I’ll turn I’ll give you the opportunity to ask any questions of me,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer started his presentation with an update on new hires in the previous six-month period, including: Chief of Staff Dr. John O’Brien

  • Nurse Executive Dr. Pam Jackson
  • Whole Health Director Dr. Matthew Geyer
  • Chief of Cardiology Dr. Francis Thandroyen 
  • Chief of Mental Health Dr. Scott Smith
  • Chief of Social Work Service Ms. Rhonda Allan-Geary
  • Chief, Care in the Community Leadership Ms. Yvette Yeager

Whitmer said several of the experienced hires were part of a strategy to provide training to young physicians and nurses.

“We had not had a permanent chief of staff for nearly two years. So we are excited to have Dr. John O’Brien,” Whitmer said. “Our goal is to attract young providers to learn and train through a residency program, but also have an opportunity to rotate throughout community-based outpatient clinics, and deliver care and learn about practice medicine in rural areas. Our hope is, that those young people that train with us like delivering care in the VA system and decide to stay with us.”

O’Brien, who started his career working with veterans, worked for years in academia and will be leading the VA’s medical education efforts, Whitmer said.

Thandroyen will also play a key role in efforts to train the next generation, Whitmer said.

“Dr. Thandroyen is at the end of his private practice career, but he wanted to give back, and wanted to give back to veterans, not just in providing outstanding cardiology services, but he wanted to be part of training our next generation of providers,” Whitmer said. “He was really renowned and had a very thriving practice in Greenville, S.C. and wanted to relocate to Dublin.”

Whitmer also credited the new hires, in part, with a turnaround in the quality of services offered at the medical center.

“About two years ago … it was a one-star rated facility on the high risk list, and through a lot of work and dedication by our clinical teams, and our administrative teams, we are now a 3-star facility, certainly on our way to higher measures,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer then gave an update on expansion and renovation plans at the outpatient facilities. He said a team is currently in the due diligence stage of exploring options for the facility in Milledgeville, which will need to renew a 10-year lease in 2022.

“As you know, our clinic is embedded here at the Georgia War Veterans Home. It’s a good symbiotic relationship because many of our veterans that are here in the war home are also our patients for primary care and mental health services,” Whitmer said. “We’re two years away from that lease expiration and this is the time for us to examine renovations for that space and what makes the most sense for the nearly 2,000 unique veterans we serve in Milledgeville and Baldwin County area.”

Whitmer said the catchment area is currently seeing a 7% growth rate in number of veterans.

Whitmer said the recently-enacted Mission Act, which includes expansion of a caregiver support program, will necessitate additional staff at the Milledgeville facility.

“We are expanding that program to all eras of veterans,” Whitmer said. “So, we expect there’ll be a lot of growth in that program, and we want to make sure we have enough staff that are based here in Baldwin County for that purpose.”

Whitmer then talked about an expansion in cardiological services and and $800,000 investment in state-of-the-art equipment. He said Thandroyen is facilitating a system that will allow any non-invasive care to be done in Dublin or an area clinic, with referrals to Atlanta or Augusta for more invasive procedures.

“I’m very excited that we were able to not only attract a world-class cardiologist, but someone who is interested in serving veterans and giving back in training the next generation of providers,” Whitmer said. “And that’s very consistent with our mission to create a campus in Dublin that is geared toward education and training.”

Whitmer also talked about a program that will allow veterans to receive assistance from the Veterans Benefits Administration from any location with high-speed internet, via video conferencing. Whitmer said the Dublin clinics would be staffed and consultants from the VA in Martinsburg, WV, which has successfully implemented the program, will travel to Dublin to help ensure it is being run efficiently.

“We think this is going to be a great service for veterans,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer said the new staff and initiatives are all part of an ultimate goal to become a highly-reliable organization with minimized harm to the patient. 

He gave five key elements in reaching this goal, including:

  • Access
  • Customer service
  • Employee engagement
  • Outreach 
  • Whole Health

Whitmer also talked about a plan to utilize currently unused property via an enhanced use lease program, in which buildings and land would be leased to developers in the private sector, 

A current development plan would turn unoccupied buildings at the VA into 50 units for low-income or disabled veterans. 

Before opening the floor to questions, Whitmer pointed out that he holds an informal “open house” every Monday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. He said anyone is invited to call 478-277-2701 to schedule an appointment to talk with him via telephone or come in to his office at the Carl Vinson VA at that time.

“This is my chance to hear the voice of the veteran and to learn from you about what’s working or what needs improvement,” Whitmer said.

After Whitmer opened the floor for questions, one person in attendance asked if there were plans to hire additional primary care doctors at the Milledgeville clinic.

“So, we have one primary care doctor and there’s also a nurse practitioner that sees patients as well,” Whitmer said. “So we have two teams that are here. But, I’ll be candid with you, we have some space constraints that are here. Which is part of the reason we’re looking at expanding here. We have about 1,800 or 1,900 unique veterans that we serve in this area. A primary aligned care team typically serves between 1,000 and 1,200 patients, so the two providers that we have are about what we need in this area. I would be candid, I’m not satisfied with the layout and design of the space we have here.”

Whitmer said the space constraints are being taken into account as a team looks at requirements for renovation.

Geyer then closed the town hall with a presentation on Whole Health. 

Geyer talked about resources available to change the approach from a negative to a positive approach, from “‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What does your health mean to you?”

He said there will always be a place for conventional care, but it won’t be necessary as often if preventional care measures that encompass areas including spirituality, exercise and diet, are taken.

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