Losing a whole year: Veterans still wait for care

Veterans wait

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Even though the Department of Veteran Affairs implemented major reforms months ago, official data shows that as many patients are waiting as long as VA medical facilities than a year ago, when the scandal first broke. According to Associated Press, the amount of appointments delayed 30-90 days has remained the same since the summer, while the amount of appointments that take over 90 days has increased almost by 100%. Approximately 894,000 appointments completed at VA facilities from August 1st-February 28th did not meet the healthcare system’s goal of seeing patients in 30 days or less.

In other words, about 1 in 36 visits were delayed by at least a month, and about 232,000 visits were delayed for more than 60 days. In some extreme cases, like that of retired Marine sergeant Rosie Noel, the VA took 10 months to schedule a follow-up test and biopsy following an anomalous cervical cancer screening. This is despite the fact that legislators gave the VA an extra $16.3 billion in August to build new facilities – for instance a 250,000-square-foot health center in Fayetteville – and hire 8,000 new employees. “I think what we are seeing is that as we improve access, more veterans are coming,” Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson said. “We are doing a whole series of things — the right things, I believe — to deal with the immediate issue. But we need an intermediate term plan that moves us ahead a quantum leap, so that we don't continue over the next three or four years just trying to stay up. We've got to get ahead of demand.”

The AP examined data from 940 VA medical facilities across the United States spanning a six month period from September 2014 to February 2015, including the following states:

  • Massachusetts. Nearly 2% of the state’s total medical appointments – about 9,000 – failed to meet the aforementioned 30 day goal; better than the 2.8% national average. Half of the delays took place in only three of the state’s 20 VA facilities. “We’re working to get the veterans into their appointments in a more timely manner,” spokesman for the Central Western Massachusetts VA Dennis Ramstein – who by the way has the greatest last name ever – told WBUR. “It’s a work in progress and definitely moving forward.”


  • Illinois. About 20,000 appointments at the state’s five major Department of Veterans Affairs' medical centers were delayed at least 30 days – 61% of which occurred at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital outside of Chicago. “We're certainly aware that we have challenges in certain areas to provide (timely) access,” Hine’s chief of staff Dr. Jack Bulmash told Kankakee’s The Daily Journal. However, he remarked that “care that is needed right now is provided right now.”


  • Wisconsin. The state’s 19 VA facilities reported relatively few delayed appointments in general, but the VA centers in Milwaukee and Madison delayed nearly 4% and 3.3% - respectively – of appointments by 30 days between September and February. “The limitation is due to lack of providers, we simply can't meet the demand," he said, noting that the facility tries to monitor patients who've waited more than 30 days and does follow-up calls to see if they can move up appointment dates,” director of the Milwaukee VA medical center Bob Beller told the Greenfield Reporter. “We're working very aggressively to recruit physicians to create additional capacity.”


  • Tennessee. Nearly 15% of appointments at the Athens clinic were delayed at least 31 days, 14% in Columbia, and 11% in Dover, WECBtv Chattanooga reports.


  • Ohio. The Portsmouth VA Clinic in rural Ohio delayed about 5.7% of its appointments beyond the VA’s deadline. Statewide, 2.4% appointments suffered the same fate. “It is more challenging to recruit and retain health care providers for these (rural) areas because we are competing with bigger cities,” said Stacia Ruby, spokesperson for the Chillicothe VA Medical Center, which delayed 4.1% of appointments.


  • California. The Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center had highest rate of delayed appointments at 6.8%, but almost 40% of the California's 61 VA hospitals and clinics had a higher-than-average percentage. “We would like to do better,” director of VA Northern California Health Care System David Stockwell told the Napa Valley Register. “Our goal is to provide timely service.”   


  • Texas. The percentage of patient visits that did not meet the VA 30-day threshold was 3.4. “It's a matter simply of supply versus demand,” El Paso's VA system chief of staff Dr. Homer LeMar told the Stephenville Empire-Tribune. “And the demand is a little ahead of the supply right now.”


  • Florida. VA centers in Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Panama City Beach, Pensacola, Lecanto and Gainesville were among the USA’s 75 medical facilities with the longest wait times. The Panama City News Herald reported that 93,000 appointments were delayed at least 30 days.


  • Rhode Island. At the Providence VA, 2% of medical appointments failed the 30-day goal, besting the national rate. Providence VA spokesman Winfield Danielson announced that 50 more employees are being hired in an effort to further reduce wait times, the Rhode Island Public Radio website said.


  • Kansas. The state’s three VA medical facilities and 16 community-based outpatient clinics did better than most other states, with only 1.8% of patients’ visits being delayed past 30 days.


  • Michigan. This state also fell below the national average. About 2% of patients at Michigan VA centers had to wait a minimum of 30 days. “We haven't had a lot of the same problems that a lot of other states have had with the wait times,” director of veteran engagement for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Suzanne Thelen told The Detroit News.


  • New York. Thirty-six of the 58 VA facilities analyzed met the 30-day timeliness protocol, but the Syracuse VA Medical Center delayed 4.5% of appointments, while the Watertown VA clinic in northern New York near Fort Drum reached a 5.2% state high, WCAX.com reported.   


All things considered, many of the facilities that tended to delay appointments are located in a few Southern states, especially in regions where there is a significant military presence, a rural population, and faster patient growth than the VA had expected.


Related Read:

- Big two-Hearted River, Pt 3: Fly fishing heals veterans

- Veterans Affairs Makes Little Headway To Shorten Waiting Times For Care