The Patient-Centered Medical Home in the Veterans Health Administration

We describe the Veterans Health Administration's nationwide patient-centered medical home (PCMH) initiative and evaluate interim changes in PCMH-related patient care processes.
Published Online: July 10, 2013
Ann-Marie Rosland, MD, MS*; Karin Nelson, MD, MSHS*; Haili Sun, PhD; Emily D. Dolan, PhD; Charles Maynard, PhD; Christopher Bryson, MD, MS; Richard Stark, MD; Joanne M. Shear, MS, FNP-BC; Eve Kerr, MD, MPH; Stephan D. Fihn, MD, MPH; and Gordon Schectman, MD
Background: The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is the largest integrated US health system to implement the patient-centered medical home. The Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) initiative (implemented 2010-2014) aims to achieve teambased care, improved access, and care management for more than 5 million primary care patients nationwide.

Objectives: To describe PACT and evaluate interim changes in PACT-related care processes.

Study Design: Data from the VHA Corporate Data Warehouse were obtained from April 2009 (pre- PACT) to September 2012. All patients assigned to a primary care provider (PCP) at all VHA facilities were included.

Methods: Nonparametric tests of trend across time points.

Results: VHA increased primary care staff levels from April 2010 to December 2011 (2.3 to 3.0 staff per PCP full-time equivalent). In-person PCP visit rates slightly decreased from April 2009 to April 2012 (53 to 43 per 100 patients per calendar quarter; P <.01), while in-person nurse encounter rates remained steady. Large increases were seen in phone encounters (2.7 to 28.8 per 100 patients per quarter; P <.01), enhanced personal health record use (3% to 13% of patients enrolled), and electronic messaging to providers (0.01% to 2.3% of patients per quarter). Post hospitalization follow-up improved (6.6% to 61% of VA hospital discharges), but home telemonitoring (0.8% to 1.4% of patients) and group visits (0.2 to 0.65 per 100 patients per quarter; P <.01) grew slowly.

Conclusions: Thirty months into PACT, primary care staff levels and phone and electronic encounters have greatly increased; other changes have been positive but slower.

Am J Manag Care. 2013;19(7):e263-e272
The Veterans’ Health Administration (VHA) is the largest integrated health system to implement the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) to date. This initiative (implemented 2010-2014) aims to achieve team-based care, improved access, and care management for more than 5 million primary care patients nationwide. Interim changes in care processes include:
  • Decreased rate of in-person primary care provider visits and increase in telephone and Internet care.
  • No significant increase in shared medical appointments.
  • Slight improvement in appointment access and continuity, which started at high levels.

  • Improved but still suboptimal post hospitalization follow-up.
The patient-centered medical home (PCMH) model is being implemented by a growing number of health organizations, with the goal of providing more comprehensive, coordinated, and patient-centered care. The major primary care medical societies have endorsed the PCMH as the desired model for primary care.1 Large health systems and primary care practice collaboratives are implementing the PCMH model, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is funding PCMH demonstration and innovation projects in diverse clinical sites.2-5 Nonetheless, published evaluations of PCMH initiatives to date have been limited to single-practice or smaller groups of practices, and often focus on limited clinical conditions.3,6-11

In 2010, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) became the largest integrated US health system to begin implementing the PCMH model at all primary care clinics throughout its nationwide system. The VHA delivers primary care to more than 5 million veterans in 16.4 million encounters annually—either at 160 large hospital-based primary care facilities, most of which are in urban areas, or 783 Community- Based Outpatient Clinics, many of which are in rural areas. Thus, VHA is facing the challenge of substantially redesigning major systems of care in an extremely large system across diverse clinical and community settings. In addition, veterans served by VHA typically have more chronic physical and mental illnesses, and are more socioeconomically vulnerable, than patients who receive care outside VHA.

The VHA’s PCMH initiative, called Patient Aligned Care Teams (PACTs), builds upon foundations established in the 1990s, when VHA undertook a major transformation from loosely organized hospitals that provided mainly inpatient and specialty care into a regionally integrated system focused on outpatient primary care.12 As part of that process, large numbers of primary care providers (PCPs) and nurses were hired by VHA, and several key elements of the PCMH model (as defined by the National Committee for Quality Assurance) were implemented, such as comprehensive electronic medical records and performance measurement and improvement programs (including programs addressing clinical outcome goals such as glycemic control and blood pressure control for patients with diabetes and cancer screening; Table 1). Since that time, VHA has demonstrated better clinical quality of care and outcomes in many areas than have been reported in other parts of the healthcare sector, including Medicare.13

However, in the 2000s the level of primary care staffing and resources remained steady, despite steady increases in numbers of primary care patients.14-16 In addition, VHA identified room for improvement in care continuity and coordination (eg, by decreasing the amount that VHA patients relied on providers not part of the Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] for acute care) and in patient-centeredness of care (eg, by providing care through telephone or electronic access when patients prefer it).17 Thus, the PACT initiative aims to enhance comprehensive and coordinated care, improve patient experience, and further improve health outcomes by increasing and reorganizing primary care staffing, and introducing several PCMH components that were not already in place.

The PACT initiative began in April 2010, and full implementation is anticipated to continue through 2014. Patient Aligned Care Teams also include a concurrent plan (and budget) for nationwide evaluation, including quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis. In this study, we describe the design of PACT and the extent of structural changes made by facilities in response to the PACT plan to date. Then, we present an interim nationwide evaluation of observed changes in patient care processes related to PACT goals.


Continuity Through Team-Based Care

To enhance continuity, staff are organized into teamlets that provide care to an assigned panel of about 1200 patients.18 A teamlet consists of 1 PCP, 1 registered nurse (RN) care manager, 1 licensed practical nurse (LPN) or medical assistant, and 1 administrative clerk. Teamlets are designed to optimize work flow by enabling each member to function at the top of their expertise. For example, PACT RNs are expected to manage care of patients with multiple chronic conditions through in-person and telephone encounters, and medical assistants are expected to provide preventive health screening. To facilitate communication and planning, teamlets are expected to hold regular huddles.19 The PACT clinical pharmacists assigned to a set of teamlets also manage patients with poorly controlled chronic illnesses through independent patient encounters.

To establish the teamlet model, the VHA mandated that facilities provide 3.0 full-time equivalents (FTEs) of primary care support staff per full-time PCP by the end of 2011, with dedicated funding to facilities for this. From April 2010 to December 2011, primary care support staff increased from 10,501 FTEs to 13,742 FTEs (Table 2), corresponding to an increase from 2.3 FTEs to 3.0 FTEs support staff per PCP FTE nationwide. In addition, 76% of facilities reported holding daily teamlet huddles in July 2011 (up from 21% pre-PACT, Table 2).

Patient Access to Care

Patient Aligned Care Teams aim to improve patient access through 3 methods. First, facilities are instructed to enact advanced access scheduling,20 including increased availability of same-day appointment slots. Second, facilities are asked to conduct more appointments via phone and by shared medical appointments. In response to this directive, 40% of facilities set aside hours during the clinical workday dedicated to scheduled phone visits by July 2011 (up from 14% pre-PACT; Table 2). It should also be noted that efforts were made to more accurately code and capture clinical encounters that occurred over the phone. Third, PACT aims to increase patient access to personal health data and providers via the Internet. This goal is accomplished through (1) an enhanced Internet-based personal health record (, which allows patients to manage prescriptions and view test results and appointments; and (2) a secure messaging website, which allows patients to send electronic messages to their teamlet. To use either service, VA patients must complete an in-person registration and identity check. The PACT initiative directed each parent facility to add a personal health record/secure messaging coordinator, who encourages and facilitates patient and staff use of these technologies (Table 2).

Care Management and Coordination

The VHA hired 1271 primary care RN care managers between January 2010 and December 2011 (Table 2). The role of the RN care manager is envisioned to include chronic illness management, panel management of high-risk patients, and facilitation of patient care transitions. Among these responsibilities, post hospitalization follow-up was chosen as an early focus. Some RN care managers are assigned to telehealth monitoring of patients with chronic conditions. Telehealth consoles transmit patients’ health data (eg, blood glucose, blood pressure) from the patient’s home over a phone or Internet connection to the VA. Telehealth nurses at the patient’s home facility manage clinically relevant changes over the phone.

Also included in PACT is funding for a full-time health promotion/ disease prevention specialist at each facility to oversee screening and counseling programs related to healthy behaviors, such as healthy eating and tobacco cessation. Health Behavior Coordinators (typically clinical psychologists or social workers) at each facility support this program by training clinical staff in evidence based behavior change counseling techniques. Almost all facilities now have hired these 2 staff members (Table 2).21

Providing accessible and broad care for mental health conditions and coordinating that care with other aspects of primary care are essential to providing comprehensive primary care in the VHA, as approximately 15% of veterans have a mental illness or substance use disorder.22 The Primary Care-Mental Health Integration program, which began pre-PACT in 2007, provides primary care–based treatment of common mental health conditions (eg, depression) and risky health behaviors (eg, heavy alcohol use) by mental health clinicians partnering with and co-located with primary care staff. The Primary Care-Mental Health Integration program is already quite robust across the VHA, and its critical role in PACT is more fully described elsewhere.21

Patient Partnership

The PACT providers and clinical staff are being trained in patient-centered communication.21 By the end of 2011, facilitators were trained at all VHA facilities, and the 2012 PACT plan was to train 50% of the primary care teamlet staff. In addition, 36% of facilities followed the PACT plan to form patient advisory councils in July 2011, an increase from 18% in October 2009.


Design and Sampling

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