BY MARY WICOFF email@example.com
---- — DANVILLE — When Japhet Rivera has a bit of downtime, he likes to stroll through the halls of the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System, chatting with veterans and employees.
“I want to be approachable,” the new director said. “I like to talk to veterans.”
Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, has been on the job since March 9, replacing Emma Metcalf. He will oversee delivery of health care to more than 33,000 veterans in central Illinois and west central Indiana with an operating budget of more than $200 million.
Keeping in touch with veterans and staff is a top priority. By the end of this month, he will have visited all of the outpatients clinics, and this week, he will start making leadership rounds and spend an hour or so with each program or department.
Hilary Edgerly, assistant chief of social work, often goes to daily “huddle” meetings with Rivera and other administrators to address issues and problems.
“He pays attention to details and wants to know what’s going on in the facility,” she said. “Mr. Rivera is very kind, educated and knows the VA system. I think he’ll be a good leader for us.”
Rivera said he doesn’t plan any changes before assessing the organization — where it is and where he wants it to be. In the meantime, however, he’s impressed with the facility.
Rivera has served in large places, including as interim director at the VA in Wichita, Kan., as deputy director and interim director for the VA in San Juan, and as associate director for the VA system in Miami.
In San Juan, he was interim director of the VA Caribbean Health Care System, which is one of the most complex of the nation’s 153 VA medical centers.
He sees things happening in Danville that he didn’t see in the bigger places.
“You can have a nice facility and latest equipment, but at the end of the day, it’s the people who make a facility — that’s why I’m impressed with this organization,” he said.
He cited the commitment and passion that the staff has for the veterans — and that’s the bottom line at the VA.
“I’m very, very veteran-centered. All decisions are made with the veteran in mind,” Rivera said. “I think it’s a privilege to be here providing services to the heroes of our nation.”
Rivera has 20 years of active military service as an Army Medical Service Corps officer in the Army Medical Department, serving from 1987-2007. He served in the Pentagon as a medical technology staff officer in the Office of the Secretary of the Army for Acquisition Logistics and Technology.
He deployed to Panama in 1989 to support operations Nimrod Dancer and Just Cause. After 9/11, he was deployed to Kuwait as a medical operations planner and in 2004, he deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Rivera noted the Illiana System is ahead of its peers in many ways, particularly in the areas of renovation. Illiana also is a leader in providing Greenhouses — a home-like atmosphere for older veterans — and was the first VA in the country to open one. Danville now has two and has broken ground on two more.
In addition, Illiana expects to break ground this fall for an apartment complex for homeless veterans.
“We have a commitment to end homelessness by 2015,” Rivera said. “We still have veterans outside without a home. We need to continue to bring them into the system. This is their facility — we are here for them.”
One of Rivera’s goals is to make sure that veterans and their families know about the services available. Some veterans aren’t aware of what’s offered, and he wants to reach out to them.
Rivera also wants to review all of the services being offered, saying, “We do have a responsibility to provide those services to veterans. And we have a fiscal responsibility to be good stewards of our taxpayer dollars.”
Rivera said that, wherever he goes, he gets involved with the community and tries to support it as much as he can.
He’s a member of Vermilion Advantage, Danville Rotary Club, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I have really enjoyed my first month here,” he said. “I have enjoyed the city and the welcome I’ve received.”
He added, “I’m looking forward to maintaining a relationship with the city and showing that the VA is here as part of the community and providing services to the veterans.”
Rivera has three grown children.
Rivera received undergraduate education in business administration from the Interamerican University, San Juan, and graduate education in public administration from Central Michigan University and Columbia Southern University, Alabama.
He holds certifications in supply chain management and supply chain leadership from Penn State University, lean logistics from St. Louis University, lifecycle acquisition and facilities engineering from the Defense Acquisition University.
He is a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives.