The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin recently outlined the state of the VA and clearly said one of his top five priorities is to have all eligible veterans get their health care from VA — not because they have to, but because they want to. I'm proud to say that veterans in the Tampa Bay area already choose to get their care at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital and Clinics.
More than 93,000 of our nation's heroes receive primary, specialty and mental health care at one of our facilities in Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties. That translates to more than 1.3 million outpatient encounters each year, and that number is growing as we increase the quality of and access to our health care services.
We're a leader in VA when it comes to access. We were among the first VA facilities to offer same-day services, meaning a veteran who has an immediate need will have that need met the same day, whether through a same-day appointment, a phone consultation, prescription refills or through secure email messaging. More than 98 percent of our veterans are seen by a VA provider within 30 days, but if a veteran needs to wait more than 30 days for a procedure, they are offered the chance to see an outside provider under contract with the VA through the Veterans Choice program. We have expanded the choice program to include more than 200 different heath care professionals in our area and that number is growing.
Even when our veterans are given the option of seeing an outside provider, more than 80 percent are choosing to stay with us to get their care. That's why we continue to expand our facilities. We recently broke ground on a new community-based outpatient clinic in southern Hillsborough County, and we're also in the process of expanding our clinics in New Port Richey, Brooksville and Lakeland, all so we can improve veterans' access to care when and where they need it.
In the meantime, we want to maximize the capacity we have so we can see as many veteran patients as possible — because each has earned their health care through the service they provided to our nation. If you're a veteran and aren't getting your care from us, I encourage you reach out to our eligibility office to see what benefits are available to you.
Of course, we have challenges just like any other large organization, but we embrace a culture of continuous improvement to meet and overcome those challenges. Our sole purpose is to provide high quality health care services for our nation's heroes, and our 5,000 employees work hard to make that happen each and every day.
Joe D. Battle is director of James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital and Clinics. Haley is one of the largest and busiest medical facilities in the Department of Veterans Affairs. It provides care for more than 94,000 veterans in Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties with more than 1.8 million patient visits a year. It has about 5,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $1 billion.