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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Veterans who are ill still face long waits

One in 36 patient visits are delayed a month or more

The Columbian
Published:

Vancouver VA division

o One of 12 sites in the regional VA Portland Health Care System.

o 48,671 appointments completed September through February.

o 4.07 percent: Care delayed by 31 days or more (1,979 cases).

National VA system

o About 1,000 facilities.

o 27.5 million appointments completed September-February.

o 2.8 percent: National average of delays of 31 days or more.

o 30 days: VA goal is for patients to be seen within 30 days.

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C — A year after Americans recoiled at new revelations that sick veterans were getting sicker while languishing on waiting lists — and months after the Department of Veterans Affairs instituted major reforms — government data shows that the number of patients facing long waits at VA facilities has not dropped at all.

No one expected that the VA mess could be fixed overnight. But The Associated Press has found that since the summer, the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has largely stayed flat. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Nearly 894,000 appointments completed at VA medical facilities from Aug. 1 to Feb. 28 failed to meet the health system’s timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days.

That means roughly one in 36 patient visits involved a delay of at least a month. Nearly 232,000 of those appointments involved a delay of longer than 60 days.

A closer look reveals deep geographic disparities.

Many delay-prone facilities are clustered in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process.

Of the 75 clinics and hospitals with the highest percentage of patients waiting more than 30 days for care, 12 are in Tennessee or Kentucky, 11 are in eastern North Carolina and the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, 11 are in Georgia or southern Alabama, and six are in northern Florida.

Seven more were clustered in the region between Albuquerque, N.M., and Colorado Springs, Colo.

Those 47 clinics and hospitals represent just a fraction of the more than 1,000 VA facilities nationwide, but they were responsible for more than one in five of the appointments that took longer than 60 days to complete.

That has meant big headaches for veterans such as Rosie Noel, a retired Marine sergeant awarded the Purple Heart in Iraq after rocket shrapnel slashed open her cheek and broke her jaw.

Noel, 47, said it took 10 months for the VA to successfully schedule her for a follow-up exam and biopsy after an abnormal cervical cancer screening test. Her first scheduled appointment in February 2014 was postponed due to a medical provider’s family emergency, she said. Her make-up appointment at the VA hospital in Fayetteville, one of the most backed-up facilities in the country, was canceled when she was nearly two hours into the drive from her home in Sneads Ferry on the coast.

Noel said she was so enraged, she warned the caller she had post-traumatic stress disorder — and they better have security meet her in the lobby.

“To say I was livid is being mild,” she said.

The AP examined six months of appointment data at 940 individual VA facilities to gauge changes since a scandal over delays led to the resignation of the VA’s secretary and prompted lawmakers in August to give the VA an additional $16.3 billion to hire doctors, open more clinics and build the new Choice program that allows patients facing long delays to get private-sector care. Data for individual facilities were not available for August.

The analysis reveals stark differences between the haves and have-nots.

In the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states, few VA sites reported having significant delays. A little less than half of all VA hospitals and clinics reported averaging fewer than two appointments per month that involved a wait of more than 60 days.

But at the VA’s outpatient clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., 7,117 appointments completed between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 involved a wait of more than 60 days.

VA officials cite many efforts to ramp up capacity by building new health centers and hiring more staff.

Vancouver VA division

o One of 12 sites in the regional VA Portland Health Care System.

o 48,671 appointments completed September through February.

o 4.07 percent: Care delayed by 31 days or more (1,979 cases).

National VA system

o About 1,000 facilities.

o 27.5 million appointments completed September-February.

o 2.8 percent: National average of delays of 31 days or more.

o 30 days: VA goal is for patients to be seen within 30 days.

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