The job of ushering Long Island’s veterans health system into the future falls upon Huntington-born Scott Guermonprez, a retired Air Force colonel who learned the medical-administration business halfway around the world in Okinawa.
Guermonprez, born at Huntington Hospital, joined the Air Force after graduating from high school in Georgia. He took over in late June as the new head of the Department of Veterans Medical Center in Northport.
Interviewed recently at the medical center, he identified a key initiative — using video and data technology to provide remote care at VA clinics on the Island.
Doing so, he said, could eventually spare as many as 40 percent of the medical system’s patients the need to drive to Northport to interact with its doctors for medical or psychiatric care. Patients and doctors would instead interact through telemedicine monitors from any of the five satellite VA clinics, or perhaps even video equipment located in their homes.
“The goal for the medical center and the entire VA is to expand telemedicine,” he said. “What we’d like to do is make sure we make strategic investments in extending access to care to our veterans closer to home.”
Veterans have long complained that it can be difficult to reach Long Island’s only veterans hospital, located on a narrow road 10 miles from the Long Island Expressway.
Northport’s location was considered a plus in the 1920s, when the facility was first built to quarantine tuberculosis patients. But for East End veterans who must drive an hour and a half or more to get there, it’s now mostly a nuisance.
Guermonprez said telemedicine could also help Northport address shortages in certain medical specialties by allowing patients to interact with caregivers at VA facilities anywhere in the country. And telemedicine has the potential to reduce the number of appointments canceled by patients too frail or otherwise unable to travel.
“If you are an elderly veteran and have difficulty traveling just five minutes to the grocery store to get a bottle of milk, it may be difficult for you to be asked to go 30 minutes or an hour to the main medical center for care,” Guermonprez said.
The medical industry is increasingly leveraging remote communications, a trend driven in part by falling prices for improved cameras, cellphone technology and increased internet speeds.
Clinicians using high-definition video monitors can examine wounds, review prescriptions, answer questions, and even hold psychotherapy sessions — all without requiring the patient to be physically present.
The VA spent more than $1.2 billion nationwide in 2016 to provide telemedicine services to more than 700,000 patients, according to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Nationally, the VA is still in the early stages of developing a portfolio of telemedicine practices; Northport is part of the effort.
“We’ve already placed an order for 297 more webcams,” Guermonprez said.
Ken Wiseman, a legislative liaison for the national Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the veterans advocacy group is generally supportive of the move toward telemedicine.
Still, he worried that tens of thousands of veterans with no internet access could be left behind if the shift toward telemedicine deprives brick-and-mortar VA health facilities of resources, he said.
And Wiseman said it is important that the technologies and methods that the VA develops are user-friendly, especially for older veterans who came of age before the era of laptop computers, text messages and Skype-style conversations.
“It needs to be easy,” Wiseman said. “I’m only 34 and can have trouble with my iPhone.”
A start on Long Island
Guermonprez lived in Lake Grove until, when he was 13, his family moved, first to Phoenix and then to Savannah.
An enlistee at 17, Guermonprez took on finance administration as his military specialty so he could honor his mother’s wish that he attend college while in uniform.
His introduction to running medical facilities was made on tropical Okinawa.
Sent to Japan in 1987, Guermonprez studied Japanese language and culture while working on a 1990 bachelor’s degree in computer studies through a remote campus program of the University of Maryland. He met his Okinawan wife there and sometimes held staff meetings in Japanese.
His 30-year Air Force career frequently involved him in medical logistics — the process of ensuring that military hospitals are kept supplied with therapeutic drugs, surgical equipment and other supplies needed to keep running.
Guermonprez, who served with the Medical Services Corps, directed the VA Medical Center in Albany until June.
Guermonprez, who also holds a master’s degree in management from Alabama’s Troy State University, acknowledges he faces several other challenges at Northport.
With leaking roofs, failing ventilation systems, crumbling sidewalks and other maladies, much of the facility’s infrastructure is in such bad disrepair that the hospital was forced to cancel surgeries for several months in 2016. He said one of his earliest decisions involved directing the maintenance staff to build a drainage trench to divert rainwater that regularly flooded the facility’s auditorium building, leaving it smelling moldy.
In less than six months, Guermonprez has presided over dramatic management changes at Northport, replacing among others the facility’s medical chief of staff, its chief of engineering, its nursing director and its chief financial officer.
He said he has drawn on his military background to try to motivate a staff he said perhaps had become comfortable in waiting for things to happen.
“It’s holding folks accountable and getting people to see that they can be pushed beyond what they think is possible,” he said. “The expectation is, you get it done someway, somehow.”
Northport VA Medical Center
- Opened: 1928
- Average number of patients per day: 1,450
- Number of unique patients per year: 32,000
- Largest clinical patient load: mental health
- Clinics located in Riverhead, Patchogue, Bay Shore, East Meadow and Valley Stream