Audit: Tens of thousands of veterans overdue for first medical visits

Durham VA worst in nation for mental-health wait times
Jun. 12, 2014 @ 03:14 PM

It takes about 104 days for a new patient seeking psychiatric care to get an appointment at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

That’s according to a federal audit report released Monday in which the Veterans Health Administration indicated that – nationwide – 57,000 veterans have waited more than 90 days for their first appointments and another 64,000 who enrolled within the past 10 years never met with a doctor.

The VA “is moving aggressively to contact these veterans,” the report states.

The audit covered 731 facilities and included data on wait times, broken down by facility.

Durham’s average wait time for new patient primary care was about 64 days – less than half the average of 145 days in Honolulu, Hawaii. New patients seeking specialty care in Durham wait 69 days.

But Durham’s the worst in the nation for mental-health wait times, followed by Clarksburg, West Virginia (96 days), Amarillo and El Paso, Texas (61 and 60 days, respectively) and Erie, Pennsylvania (57 days).

In our region, Fayetteville’s VA center takes about 27 days to see new patients for mental-health care, while Asheville takes 33 and Salisbury takes just under 32.

But Fayetteville’s the worst in North Carolina for new patients waiting for primary care: 83 days.

Local VA officials said they would review the data and comment Tuesday.

The good news for Durham, the report indicates, is that established patients don’t seem to wait terribly long. Established patients wait less than four days for primary care, a little more than five days for specialty care and about four days for mental-health care, the audit report states.

Monday’s report is the result of the first nationwide examination of the VA network since the uproar over patients dying while awaiting appointments and cover-ups at a VA center in Phoenix.

Among the findings in the audit:

n      Complicated scheduling process caused confusion among scheduling clerks and front-line supervisors

n      A performance target of a 14-day wait time wasn’t just inconsistently deployed, it was unattainable due to service demand and lack of planning for resource requirements

n      Overall, 13 percent of scheduling staff indicated they were told to enter false dates in the appointment system

n      Eight percent of scheduling staff said they used unofficial lists to make wait times appear more favorable.

Facilities overseen by Durham in Raleigh were among locations flagged for further review. Charlotte, Wilmington and Elizabeth City also are due for follow-ups.

“Where misconduct is confirmed, appropriate personnel actions will promptly be pursued,” the report states.

The VA report lists both immediate and long-term actions in response to problems outlined in the audit.

In the short term, the VA is accelerating care for veterans waiting for services – possibly with referrals to non-VA providers in the community; suspending performance awards for senior executives this fiscal year; removing the 14-day performance goal; and implementing a site-inspection process.

Long term, the VA plans to overhaul directives for scheduling and accountability.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the audit showed “systemic problems” that demand immediate action.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, wrote a letter to Gibson on Monday, expressing alarm about delays for care in North Carolina. She seemed especially concerned about Fayetteville, which is home to Fort Bragg and has 127,000 veterans in the surrounding 21-county area.

“We must keep the promises made to the men and women who have served our country with honor and distinction,” Hagan wrote. “I am committed to working with you to ensure that North Carolina’s veterans receive the respect and the benefits they have earned in a timely manner.”

 

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.