VA audit: 100,000 veterans endure long waits before receiving medical care

Posted June 09, 2014, at 4:02 p.m.
Last modified June 09, 2014, at 6:56 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday that around 100,000 veterans are experiencing long waits for health care appointments at VA facilities, with more than half of these waiting 90 days or more.

In results of an internal audit ordered as the scandal over deadly VA wait times exploded last month, the agency said it found that schedule misreporting was widespread. Of the 731 facilities surveyed, it found that 76 percent experienced wait time reporting problems.

In the May 12 to June 3 survey, the VA said it found that 57,436 new veteran patients had been waiting 90 days or more for an appointment. And it found that 63,869 patients over the past 10 years had requested appointments that have never been scheduled.

“This data shows the extent of the systemic problems we face, problems that demand immediate actions,” VA acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement.

Maine’s VA hospital outperformed many of its counterparts in other states, though hundreds of veterans waited more than a month for an appointment.

Ninety-nine percent of appointments at the Togus VA hospital in Augusta took place within 30 days, the audit found. That still left 664 veterans waiting longer to see a medical provider.

New Togus patients waited on average 36 days for a primary care appointment. Established patients were seen much sooner, waiting little more than a day. Wait times for specialty care were longer.

Nearly 50,000 appointments were scheduled at Togus during the audit period.

The VA said it was abandoning a two-week scheduling goal for appointments after finding it was “not attainable,” and suspended bonus awards for the 2014 fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

The agency also said it will take emergency steps to rush medical care to veterans, including hiring temporary staff, keeping clinics open later, sending more patients to private care providers and bringing in mobile medical units to some locations. It will freeze hiring at headquarters offices.

A VA official said $300 million would be shifted within the agency’s budget to pay for the medical care blitz. With more than 1,700 clinics, hospitals and other facilities serving some 8.9 million veterans, the VA operates the largest U.S. health care system.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed outrage at the latest findings, which deepen the political problems that the controversy presents to President Barack Obama and his Democrats as they try to keep control of the Senate in November elections.

“The results of the VA’s report are appalling and disturbing,” said Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat in a tight re-election contest in North Carolina, a state where many military retirees live.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner called the findings “a national disgrace” and said the House of Representatives would pass a measure this week to allow veterans to seek private care at VA expense if forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.

The report made no mention of whether the long wait times had resulted in deaths of veterans. Doctors at VA clinics in Phoenix, where the investigations were first launched, have alleged that some 40 veterans have died while waiting for care.

“This data shows the extent of the systemic problems we face, problems that demand immediate actions,” VA acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement.

The report made no mention of whether the long wait times had resulted in deaths of veterans. Doctors at VA clinics in Phoenix, where the investigations were first launched, have alleged that some 40 veterans have died while waiting for care.

Gibson, who joined VA in February and took over after the resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki, said last week that of the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix whose names were held on secret waiting lists, 18 had died.

The VA said it would take emergency measures to rush medical care to veterans who are waiting, including hiring temporary staff for facilities with the worst backlogs and bringing in mobile medical units to some locations.

BDN Health Editor Jackie Farwell contributed to this report.

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