- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 6, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The new director of the Veterans Affairs’ health care system in New Mexico embarked on a tour of the state Tuesday, starting with town halls in Artesia and Alamogordo.

Andrew Welch has plans to visit several other communities over the next six weeks to meet with veterans and their families as part of an effort to restore trust after VA hospitals and clinics around the country were rocked last year by allegations of mismanagement, delays in care and secret waiting lists.

Welch tells The Associated Press that the first steps to restoring trust will be ensuring access to timely health care for veterans and making the VA accountable for the services it provides.

The town halls are aimed at listening to veterans and communities about what’s working within the health care system and what needs to need to fixed, he said.

“The approach we’re using is to listen,” he said. “That’s the first way we build trust, to listen and act upon whatever the person is telling us. That’s the way every relationship works, whether it’s personal relationships, business relationships or, obviously, relationships most importantly with our veterans.”

A wide-ranging national audit released last year showed more than 1,000 veterans had been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments within the New Mexico system. Administrators blamed the backlog on a lack of primary care physicians.

At the time, New Mexico officials acknowledged that close to 3,000 patients were assigned to a doctor who didn’t actually see them and was available only by phone.

Since then, the waiting list has been whittled down. The most recent audit of the New Mexico system shows there were 393 veterans on the electronic waiting list as of Dec. 18. Overall, less than 14 percent of the more than 42,000 appointments made within the system are scheduled beyond 30 days.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat who has been critical of the VA and its transparency, met with Welch on Monday to talk about reforming the agency. She said she’s cautiously optimistic Welch will provide the needed leadership and stability.

“My first priority is to ensure Mr. Welch has an unvarnished assessment of what’s going on with the New Mexico VA,” Grisham said in a statement. “He needs to know what works well and where the system has failed veterans.”

Grisham also suggested some employees have lost sight of their mission to provide quality care for veterans.

New Mexico VA officials said they have hired more than 40 nurses since October, and they’re planning another hiring fair in February to bolster staff.

“We are pulling numbers and looking at them to ensure that our access is good, that the quality and quantity of care we’re providing is where it needs to be,” Welch said.

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