OBJECTIVES: Suffering from waning demand, poor quality, and reform efforts enabling veterans to "vote with their feet" and leave, the Veterans Health Administration (VA) health care system transformed itself through a series of substantive changes. We examined the evolution of primary care changes underlying VA's transformation. METHODS: We used 3 national organizational surveys from 1993, 1996, and 1999 that measured primary care organization, staffing, management, and resource sufficiency to evaluate changes in VA primary care delivery. RESULTS: Only rudimentary primary care was in place in 1993. Primary care enrollment grew from 38% in 1993 to 45% in 1996, and to 95% in 1999 as VA adopted team structures and increased the assignment of patients to individual providers. Specialists initially staffed primary care until generalist physicians and nonphysican providers increased. Primary care-based quality improvement and authority expanded, and resource sufficiency (e.g., computers, space) grew. Provider notification of admissions and emergency department, urgent-care visit, and sub-specialty-consult results increased nearly 5 times. CONCLUSIONS: Although VA's quality transformation had many underlying causes, investment in primary care development may have served as an essential substrate for many VA quality gains.
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