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AURORA, Colo. — Just a week away from the ribbon-cutting ceremony on the new Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, the problem-plagued project may have another blunder on its hands.
Over-due and over-budget, the new VA is ready to celebrate July 21, but Contact7 is hearing from veterans who say they have received little to no information about the new facility.
"I find it incredibly frustrating," said Cypriane Williams.
She told Theresa Marchetta she has been trying for months to get information about how to navigate the new campus and details about where things are located.
"Some of us, such as myself, are there 3, 4, 5, 6 times a month," Williams said.
Williams served for a decade during peacetime as a Navy Hospital Corpsman with a specialty in laboratory medicine.
She was among the first women to be stationed aboard a ship overseas.
Williams knows her way around a hospital, too. She has worked at the National Cancer Institute, NIH and Walter Reed.
"Is there a drop-off area?" Williams asked. "Where are we going to park? Is there a shuttle? You've got vets with a lot of mobility issues."
She is worried the VA dropped the ball again on this project, failing to include the very veterans they serve in planning their move to Aurora.
"A lot of us vets have difficulty transitioning to something new," Williams said. "I have yet to get a letter that says, 'This is the date we're opening.' There are no pamphlets even floating around the hospital."
Williams did see a sign for orientation but said she was told it was for employees only.
"I said, 'OK, when are you going to get us involved?'"
Williams said she went to the VA director's suite that same day and volunteered to help get the word out. She said she spoke to someone who identified herself as a member of a transition team.
"She asked me to be on a transition team, and I said, 'I'll do anything that makes getting us into the new facility easier for us veterans,'" said Williams.
Williams sent her resume the next day but never heard back. That was last September.
She did get a reminder for her next appointment at the new VA facility.
"Nowhere on this appointment reminder does it say, 'Here's where the new place is located.' In fact, it still says the Denver VA facility on 9th and Clairmont," said Williams.
She waited until her next clinic visit and asked her providers.
"They're saying it's a nightmare for us. We can't imagine what it's going to be like for you as a patient," she said.
Williams saw a pile of blue papers at that visit. It turns out it was a map of the new facility.
She asked for one.
"I find this daunting. I find this scary," she said, showing Marchetta the map.
"According to this sheet, there are wayfinding stations at each entrance. So, there are multiple entrances? I thought we only got in through the north parking garage. Do you see what I mean? It's not labeled on the map. Come on, people!" Williams said.
She pulled up the VA website on her computer.
"The picture of the old facility is still up," Williams said.
There was nothing obvious on the homepage, so she clicked on the "Coming Soon" tab.
It linked to the same information with the same blue map Williams already had.
"Please check your appointment letter to verify where your appointment is scheduled," Williams read out loud.
The problem is, Williams already checked the letter for her September appointment and there is no information there either.
Even the message on the VA's "hold" when you call the facility is missing information for patients about the move.
Williams and Marchetta listened for two full minutes.
Marchetta asked Williams if she planned to go to the facility ahead of time to get her bearings before her next appointment.
Williams was not sure, so Contact7 went to see how it looked one-week before the ribbon cutting.
Unfortunately, all of the signs on the new campus were either boarded up or covered with tarps.
Contact7 asked director Sallie Houser-Hanfelder what they have been doing to help veterans prepare for this huge move.
"We have 60 transition teams," Houser-Hanfelder said. "We have a transportation team, we have a wayfinding team, and we've been working with the veteran in center front of us."
Houser-Hanfelder said they will have ambassadors wearing red coats to direct patients when they get there.
"I think it will be a challenge at the beginning," Houser-Hanfelder said. "It was for me when I first walk in, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is huge!' But once you get used to where things are, everything has been spatially put to where it's close."
"There should have been multiple availabilities to tour the facility and figure out how to get around," Williams said.
She worries just hoping vets get used to it will not be helpful enough.
"If you put some effort into considering the challenges of your stakeholders, we veterans, and some of the difficulties we may have, you could have lessened the impact and made it more welcoming. Especially in a facility that had so much trouble getting built anyway," Williams said.
Contact7 reached out to the VA to ask if there was a patient representative on any of the transition teams and to get a better idea of which clinics will be moving and when, but have not yet received a response.
In a statement sent to Contact7, Brandy Morrison, a public affairs officer for the Eastern Colorado Health Care System, said their focus is, and always will be, veterans.
The more than 60 transition teams working the move to the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center have all been focused on the Veteran’s experience. We have worked closely with our Veteran Service Organizations, individual Veteran groups and various community partners to try and make this an easy transition for our Veterans. During our multiple scenario-based “Day in the Life” exercises, we practiced more than 100 scenarios, focused on everything from how our nurses will respond to codes, to how a lost family member finds their loved one who was recently admitted. There is not one person on our team, who is not focused on our Veterans.
The ribbon-cutting is Saturday, July 21. The VA said the first out-patient clinics will move July 27. The in-patient move is on August 4.