More than 5,000 veterans in the Washington area waited more than 30 days to get medical appointments at Veterans Affairs facilities last month, a new federal audit revealed.
Nationally, more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for their first VA medical appointments, and an additional 64,000 appear to have fallen through the cracks, never getting appointments after enrolling and requesting them, the VA said Monday.
The VA released the audit Monday after reports that some VA hospitals were manipulating records to hide excessive wait times that new patients faced in getting appointments.
Thirteen percent of schedulers in the facility-by-facility nationwide audit of 731 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.
The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network in the uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center. A preliminary audit last month found that long patient waits and falsified records were “systemic” throughout the VA medical network, the nation's largest single health care provider with nearly 9 million veterans and their families as patients.
The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30. Shinseki took the blame for what he decried as a “lack of integrity” through the network. Legislation is being written in both the House and Senate to allow more veterans, including those enrolled in Medicare or the military's TRICARE program, to get treatment from outside providers if they can't get timely VA appointments. The proposals also would make it easier to fire senior VA regional officials and hospital administrators.
The audit said a 14-day target for waiting times was “not attainable,” given growing demand for VA services and poor planning. It called the 2011 decision by senior VA officials setting it, and then basing bonuses on meeting the target, “an organizational leadership failure.”
The News4 I-Team pored over the federal VA audit and found 5,268 veterans in the Washington area waited more than 30 days for their first VA medical appointment last month.
The audit found the VA facility in Baltimore has the fourth longest average wait time for new patient primary care -- 81 days for new patients, more than five times the VA’s now abandoned guidelines.
Almost 600 patients seeking initial appointments at the VA hospital in the District of Columbia are still waiting after more than 90 days, even though average wait times there are roughly in line with the national average. The average wait time for a new patient to receive an appointment with a primary care physician was 39 days, slightly shorter than the median wait.
The VA ordered further investigation of patient wait times in D.C. and Martinsburg, W.Va. Martinsburg's wait time is 47 days. Also in West Virginia, Clarksburg’s wait time is 54 days; Beckley's is 39 days; Huntington's is just under 29 days.
In Virginia, the wait time for new patients seeking a primary care doctor at the VA Center in Richmond is more than 72 days. In Hampton, the average wait time is just under 58 days. In Salem, the average wait is 34 days.
For veterans already in the system, waits were much shorter.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Monday that VA officials have contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off waiting lists and into clinics and are in the process of contacting 40,000 more.
The audit includes interviews with more than 3,772 employees nationwide between May 12 and June 3. Respondents at 14 sites reported having been sanctioned or punished over scheduling practices.