Thanks to volunteers and providers working weekend shifts, electronic waiting lists for patients seeking appointments for primary care are down to zero in the Portland Veterans Affairs medical system, its director said Thursday in Vancouver.
"They've all been scheduled," Joanne Krumberger said in a joint press briefing with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
On June 1, she said, there were 1,441 primary care patients on the waiting list.
That doesn't solve all the barriers standing between veterans and their health care, however. Keeping those lists at zero in the years to come will require something more sustainable than volunteering, said Krumberger. She was named director of the Portland VA medical system, which includes a Vancouver campus, in May.
And, an empty waiting list means those appointments have been scheduled — but not necessarily within the next few days.
Patients seeking some areas of specialty care are not being seen as quickly as those seeking primary care, Krumberger said, and 81 percent of the Portland VA's case load is in specialty care.
Those all are issues that must be addressed, Murray said.
"We have to make sure veterans are getting the care they deserve, and that they have been promised," said Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
And now, Murray said, "We are making progress."
More resources will become available after "Congress stepped up and passed legislation and the President signed it into law," Murray said.
The legislation signed by President Obama on Aug. 7 authorized $16.3 billion to improve health care for veterans.
The legislation includes $5 billion to hire additional doctors and other medical personnel.
New hires certainly would help the Portland VA site, Krumberger said.
In the last year, 24 providers have left for a variety of reasons that included retirements, family situations and other opportunities.
"To date, we have 19 firm commitments," and the Portland VA started filling staffing gaps in July with about two additions a week, Krumberger said.
The Portland VA serves 85,000 veterans and has an operating budget of $656 million.
The other top administrator on hand was Lawrence Carroll, who oversees an even bigger system from the Vancouver VA campus. Carroll is director of the Northwest Veterans Integrated Service Network.
Problems accessing care haven't been a recent development, Carroll said. The network he directs, which includes Washington and Oregon, started addressing those issues 14 months ago, he said.
"The Northwest had the longest wait list" in the national system, Carroll said, "and I don't say that with pride.
"Scheduling was a confusing, frustrating process without sufficient appointment slots," he said.
The number of veterans facing long waits "is taking a precipitous drop," Carroll said. He cited some of the same measures Krumberger described, including weekend clinics and night staffing.
To actually build improvement into the system, Carroll said, "The funding Congress passed will go a long way."